The Head of School Blog

The Head of School Blog

The Value of Natural Play

October 11, 2018

The little boy stood on the downslope of the wetted sands staring out at the vast, oblique ocean. He waited for the next wave to crash the shore, planning his escape from its watery grasp at the last possible moment in a game of cat-and-mouse. The wave crept on its belly through the still moving currents, rose up on its haunches and pounced against the awaiting shore with all its playful might. The waters foamed and sizzled, licked their way over the drying sands and then retreated into the arc of the next ascending wave. The little boy rejoiced in the sensation of the water speeding past him as he clambered up the beach, encircling his waist and tugging gently on him as it recoiled. He fell backwards and spun in the fast disappearing shallows of the tide, crying out in deep, guttural laughter and wondrous excitement.

This memory was from a family trip a couple of years ago, watching my youngest son play on the beach. It reminds me of the value of natural play and the nourishment it provides to a child’s soul. It is something I remember with great fondness from my own childhood growing up in Richmond. For me, it was the vacant lot across the road in which we built forts, hurled dirt bombs at each other, and dug pits to trap the wild animals we imagined traversed the grounds. We were adventurers and explorers, huntsmen and herdsmen.

The vacant lots, the dykes and ditches, the parks, the canyons, the beaches and the forests were the venues where we played and developed. These were the spaces of our youth, but they offered so much more than mere play. We developed our senses. We weighed the risks of jumping ditches, observed the phenomena around us, and focused our minds as we designed and constructed ramps, forts and traps. We also learned to function in groups without an adult structuring our play, or watching over us telling us to use our “inside voices” and to make sure everyone got exactly the same number of turns. But perhaps more important than the social, cognitive, neural and creative development that these natural play spaces offered us, we learned simply to be outside, to appreciate the richness of the outdoors, and to be grounded in the context of something much bigger, more eternal than ourselves.

Outdoor and experiential education is so important today in the school-based experience of children because it provides these kind of developmental activities outside the classroom. At Southpointe Academy, outdoor and experiential education play a significant role in the curriculum. A couple of weeks ago, all Grade 6-12 students took part in Project Discover, a week of outdoor-based learning that helped students develop their social and self-management skills, while pushing them to be responsible risk-takers. In the Junior School, Project Discover continues in Grade 4-5. These students participate in residential outdoor education camps later in the spring, while in Kindergarten to Grade 3, students undertake numerous field trips to enrich the curriculum, many of them outdoor and experiential-based.

Children today do not play outside as much as even a generation ago. It is a function of the way society, parenting and, therefore, children are developing. As parents, we worry about the boogeyman syndrome, that if we let our children out of our sight, someone will harm them. We worry about the evil in the world and about the safety of children, and so, albeit with good intentions, we restrict them. We don’t let them explore on their own. We structure the majority of their time, too often placing our own rules on them, leading their play.

And when children are given the freedom to play and explore outside, what do they find? A society that increasingly seeks control and order, and that prohibits forms of natural play. Some municipalities have enacted bylaws to ban road hockey, while others require permits to build tree houses in backyards. Strata councils develop covenants that limit the hours and forms of children’s play. All of this is done to protect children, but it has a cultural effect. Children more than ever play indoors and are disconnected from nature and outside, unstructured play.

At the same time, children today are also growing up in a digital environment. Technology and electronics are as much a part of their world as trees and grass, streams and mountains. This is not an entirely bad thing. Technology offers unprecedented opportunities and tools to enrich children’s knowledge, creativity and learning. But have we lost some balance? Given too much screen time, too many children would rather stay indoors and play video games than venture outside. I remember that the worst punishment a teacher could give us was to keep us inside at lunch. It never ceases to amaze me nowadays how many children simply prefer to stay inside given a choice.

We have gone wrong somewhere if children are disconnected from nature. This is why experiential programmes at Southpointe like outdoor education, field trips, service learning and camps are so critical to balancing the education of children and to enriching it. As author Richard Louv writes, “Modern life narrows the senses until our focus is mostly visual… By contrast, nature accentuates all the senses, and the senses are a child’s first line of self-defense…. Play in nature may instill instinctual confidence” (Louv, 2005, p. 180).

There is a strong body of research that shows children who spend time in nature and green spaces develop better cognitive skills and motor coordination, show greater creativity and increased attention control, and experience less stress (Louv, 2005). Natural and green play spaces also allow children to lead through language skills, imagination and inventiveness.

Artificial play spaces, on the contrary, do not offer these same benefits. Stress levels are higher and cognitive capacities less engaged, while children will determine their social hierarchy almost exclusively on the basis of physical competencies. We ought to be concerned about the place of nature, play-based learning and experiential education in schools. The value of these elements to the social-emotional, physical and cognitive development of our children is critical.

Children play outside less today than in the past, but we can do something about that. We are fortunate in South Delta to live in the cradle of nature. We have the ocean, the dykes, the farmlands and the beaches at our doorstep. We can do our children a great service by taking them on nature walks, letting them explore streams and creeks, plunk rocks in the water, dig in the dirt or sand, and generally mess about in nature. It is good for their minds and bodies, and for their souls. It centres them, allows them to regenerate, and hopefully instills in them an appreciation for nature that will lead to environmental stewardship in the future. If we can model an appreciation for natural, unstructured play, then our children will benefit. It will be everyone’s gain.

– Gordon MacIntyre, Head of School

What Makes a Great School

September 4, 2018

TS Eliot wrote:

We shall not cease from exploration, and the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and

know the place for the first time.

I showed this quote as we began our faculty meetings last week in preparation for the school year. The quote resonates with me as an educator. It encapsulates what teachers do as practitioners – constantly exploring their pedagogy, continuously inquiring into deepening the learning of their students, finding new ways to engage them, and new platforms for them to demonstrate their understanding.

Teachers are like world class athletes, dancers, musicians and artists. They continually seek to refine their craft and take their performance to the next level. In doing so, a journey of self-discovery naturally unfolds and teachers come to know themselves as artisans in a more nuanced way. They come to know the classroom again for the first time.

A culture of continuous development is one hallmark of a great school. It is a difficult notion to confer to parents who are not always privy to the long meetings, constant process of reflection and passionate dialogues about student learning that often transpire outside of regular school hours. What truly makes a great school cannot be found in numbers, cannot be quantified, and cannot be computed with stats. Instead, the answer lies largely in four “Cs”.

The first “C” was for a culture of continuous development. The second “C” is for caring. At Southpointe, the sense of caring for students at all ages is a defining element of the constitution of the School’s character. It begins in Kindergarten with the warmth and love our youngest students receive everyday so that they feel secure in order to learn, experiment, inquire and grow. It continues throughout the Junior School with a deep sense of pastoral care and up into the Middle Years from Grades 6-9, where advisors and subject teachers know students individually and foster respectful, connected relationships.  Finally, caring for students culminates in the Graduation Years from Grades 10-12, where teachers challenge students to stretch their intellects, while exercising unconditional regard for their physical and social-emotional wellbeing.

Modelling caring for students nourishes a culture of caring about others, a culture that provides the moral foundation for social good.  While caring for tends to occur in tender moments of human interaction, caring about – people, places, animals, the environment – is unbound by time and place.  At Southpointe, a sense of caring for and about others is an essential component of being a great school.

The third “C” is about community. Community arises out of common purpose and a shared set of beliefs. It is the glue that binds parents, students, teachers and the school as a whole together. Its embodiment takes many forms – the school uniform, the assemblies, the personalisation of student learning, the service learning trips, and the experiences of exhibiting art, singing in a choir, playing in a band, performing on stage and donning a Titans’ jersey in athletic competition. When a family first joins Southpointe, the parents are joining a school community the same as their children. Parents who share the value of a Southpointe education, the commitment to support it, and the experiences that result from it develop a common bond. A genuine sense of community is all too rare in schools, but it is a cornerstone of Southpointe. This is what contributes to being a top school.

The fourth “C” is about curriculum. Southpointe’s educational offering provides students with outstanding preparation for success in university, career and citizenship. It is one of the select few in North America practicing the IB Primary and Middle Years Programmes along with the AP Capstone within a single-school context. The IB programmes are the only internationally recognised programmes at Elementary and Middle School levels, while the AP Capstone offers university-level skill development in critical thinking and research. When you have supportive parents in combination with capable students, a team of world class teachers, an outstanding educational framework and modern facilities, you create the recipe for being a great school.

As Southpointe looks to the future, we will remain committed to our goal of continuous development as a school. We will be steadfast in our strategic direction and we will not lose sight of what truly makes a great school – the relationships, the sense of common purpose, the shared values, the great teachers, and the best educational programme on offer. Culture, caring, community and curriculum – these are the keys to excellence in learning.

– Gordon MacIntyre, Head of School