Ed Johnson sent an email out a few days ago in which he described the kinds of experiences that students at a local elementary school might experience if the school took advantage of its place right next to an Atlanta system of Trails and Greenways that ultimately create miles of paved trails through forests and waterways that will connect to the Atlanta Beltline, a network of public parks, multi-use trails, and transit along a “historic 22-mile railroad corridor circling downtown and connecting many neighborhood directly to teach other.
Ed Johnson provides a glimpse into how the Atlanta Beltline and it associated green spaces and trails could be used to humanize and create an experiential and sensual approach to teaching and learning.
I’m Emeritus Professor of Science Education at Georgia State University, and have lived and worked in Atlanta for more than 45 years. I’ve met lots of incredible science educators, researchers and science teachers, especially in the Atlanta Public Schools during this time.
However, there is new science educator in town!
Experiential learning. Inquiry. Finding out. Asking questions. Wondering. No one could explain these ideas or say it better than Ed Johnson.
Here is what he had to say about learning.
Atlanta Public Schools superintendent Meria Carstarphen has blogged good news: Lets Play! Every APS Elementary School Gets a Playground! She recaps that, as a consequence of the school board having decided to provide for schools to be more equitable operationally, nine of ten priority elementary schools now have a playground ready for back-to-school. In addition, she reports that a playground at the tenth priority elementary school, Beecher Hills Elementary, is under construction and that the planning process there includes working with a City of Atlanta arborist. Great!
So, speaking of Beecher Hills Elementary School
One of several points of entry onto a system of greenway trails is right next to the gated entry to Beecher Hills Elementary. It is at that entry point to the trails that I sometimes start and end a walk-run. Being out there to emerge in the surroundings and to be open to The Universe always proves a way to more fully engage the senses, and to renew. What am I seeing? Hearing? Feeling? Smelling? Tasting? One the most engaging times out on the trails occurred during a torrential downpour, and I got soaking wet. Still, the rain provided a very different learning context and experience I had not before imagined.
The greenway trails effectively extend Beecher Hills Elementary Schools backyard. And because they do, I often think it would be magical to be a kid at Beecher with freedom to play and learn in and from that extended backyard.
The point of entry to the greenway trails at Beecher Hills Elementary lies adjacent to the schools front driveway. From that entry point the greenway meanders northward and down the westward side of the hill upon which the school sits. Then the greenway curves eastward along a fence behind the school before curving northward and connecting with an east-west trail just beyond having crossed a creek.
Out Beechers back doors and down the hill, the fence encloses an expansive green field just begging to be played on. The field catches my eye, every time. It always invites me to pause and wonder what would kids do if let loose upon it? What sort of games would they innovate and play? What sort of learning would they innovate and personalize and internalize for themselves? What sort of questions would the kids ask prompted by observations they would have made? Would they even ask questions, having been trained to give only answers à la standardized teaching, learning, and testing? Would teachers run themselves ragged trying to control the kids play? How would teachers deal with kids questions, especially questions lacking answers?
And then I think, hmm, nighttime. Hardly any surrounding light! Look up, billions and billions! thanks, Carol Sagan! And, of course, thanks, too, to that astrophysicist guy Neil Degree Tyson who claims All I did was drive the getaway car when Pluto got knocked off. So, yep, a telescope, right in the center of the field out back Beecher Hills Elementary School. Cant you just imagine?!
Now, in addition to the field, thoughts of experiencing something new at any random point along the greenway invite imagining there could come from being a kid at Beecher Hills Elementary School a magical mix-up of unconventional play and learning from inquiry kids tend to do innately until thought to do otherwise:
What kind of tree is this? How old is this tree? That tree? Why has that tree grown so tall and skinny? How long has that big old-looking tree over there been here? How long does a tree live? Will it live longer than me? Why do these three trees share the same trunk? Why have some trees fallen? What happens to a tree after it falls? Why do some trees have different shaped leaves? Why do tree leaves change color from time to time? Why do some trees drop all their leaves and some dont? Do trees breathe? Do trees eat? How are people like trees?
What kind of grass is this? Why are its flowers blue? And why are the flowers on this grass yellow? Why does this flower smell sweet? This one yucky? This one no smell at all? Why do some grass have flowers and some dont? What is a flower? Why do some plants grow tall and some grow close to the ground? Why is this plant a vine? Why do some vines grow berries? Why is it safe to eat some berries and not others? Why is this plant over here growing in the wet soil but not over here in the dry soil?
Where does the water in the creek come from? Where does the water go? Why is the water level in the creek sometimes high and sometimes low? Why is there a bank of sand in the creek? Where did the sand come from? Why are fish in the creek? What do the fish eat? Why are the fish so small? Look, over here! What kind of animal is that swimming? Why does it wiggle its tail like that when swimming? Why is trash in the creek? Where did the trash come from? What harm does the trash do?
How come manholes are out here in the woods? Who made the manholes? Who made the manhole iron covers? Why do the manholes make the sound of rushing water? How are the manholes and the covers on them connected to the history of Atlanta and the area around Beecher Hills Elementary?
What kind of birds are those hopping and taking short flights along the greenway? What do the birds eat? Do the birds live in the woods or fly in? What is that circling overhead? A hawk? A vulture? Why is it circling instead of flying straight ahead? Why is it soaring higher and higher yet not flapping its wings? Why are some birds a lot bigger than other birds? How come birds can fly? How are people like birds?
What kind of spider is this? Why has it spun a web of circles high off the ground and between two trees? How did it manage to get from one tree to the other tree to anchor its web? Do all spiders spin the same kind of web? Are some spiders helpful to people? Are all spiders helpful to nature?
Look, a snail! Why does it move so slowly? Why does it have a shell? Why does it leave a trail of slime behind? Why do snails have antenna? Can snails see? Do they have eyes? How do snails eat? Do snails have a mouth? What do snails eat?
How come ants can walk so fast for their size? And carry so much for their size? Where are the ants going? Where are they coming from? Why are they trailing each other? Why do two ants stop to greet each other when passing in the opposite direction? Why do ants have antenna? What kind of eyes do ants have? Why do ants have six legs? How many parts to an ants leg? Why do ant bodies have three segments? Why do ants sting? What happens to me when an ant stings me? How many ants are in the world? How are ants helpful to people? How are people like ants?
Why is the dirt red? What lives in the dirt? What kind of rock is this?
And much, much and many, many more opportunities for magical play and learning in and from the extended backyard of Beecher Hills Elementary School!
So, a playground for Beecher Hills Elementary School being little more than an outdoor gym set?
Sure, but why just that? What reason could it be except adults deeply held need to exercise conventional command-and-control of children playing and learning what adults have been decided for the children to play and learn?
Well, the greenway trails offer a clear and present alternative, or at least a supplement, to the conventional. And the alternative is right there in Beecher Hills Elementary Schools extended backyard. Awesome!
Advocate for Quality in Public Education