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Free-Range Learning—Getting Students Out of Their Desks

By Vanessa Park, Dutchess Day School Director of Communications and Development 


Weekly science labs for all classes (pictured: 8th grade chemistry)

The iconic image of children learning is one of neat rows of desks inhabited by tidy children, hands folded in a listening pose, or reading from an open text book, or maybe writing on slate or paper, (fast forward to tablet or laptop).  

Desks sure do come in handy, sometimes. It’s easier to write out a long division problem on lined paper if you have a desk. A first-grade teacher might tell you that keeping a work area organized is sometimes helped when children have their own desks on which to build their castles out of toothpicks and marshmallows. On the floor, things could get messy fast. There are reasons that most schools still use desks.


High Ropes and team building for upper schoolers

But more and more during the school day, children are learning away from their desks. We all know that kids learn everywhere, at all times, and in all circumstances. They are never “not learning.” So when a toddler stacks blocks or a 4-year-old struggles with shoelaces or a six year old accidentally drops a ripe tomato onto the floor—these are lessons in cause and effect, spatial orientation, architecture, engineering, and physics, to name a few. A trip to the park, museum, or ocean are chances to learn about literally countless truths, processes, ways of thinking and seeing. At school, recess, lunch, dismissal, and even the school bus ride are opportunities to learn interactive skills, how to navigate messy, loud, or socially challenging situations, not to mention how to barter, share, participate, help others, clean up, and be a good citizen.


3rd Grade Gold Rush Day

The more teachers inspire their children with learning opportunities away from their desks, the richer and more memorable these “lessons” become. Third graders can read about the gold rush in a text book or even a biography of John Sutter, but what if they pan for gold nuggets outside on the school grounds? What if, after school the day before, their teacher hid tiny rocks, spray-painted gold, all around the recess fields? Then, what if the children were provided with small picks and pans? What if they had to weigh their gold on scales and do the math to trade, barter, sell? What if they had to haggle for the best price for their gold with the owner of the general store, played by the teacher? What if they all wore costumes that day? Bandanas, rolled up jeans, flannel, and tool belts, and what if they called it Gold Rush Day?

The children will learn so much about the processes, the experiences of the gold rush. Who is in charge? Who “owns” this stake? Can I get a better price if I sell to someone else? How much will be deducted for the price of my pan and pick—that I could not pay for before I started? What happens when the gold runs out? Kindergarteners, first and second graders will look forward to this incredible learning experience. Fourth and fifth graders will reminisce fondly.


4th Grade ancient Egypt Pharaoh's Tomb

But meanwhile, in all those grades, children are out of their desks. Creating art and archeological “artifacts,” perhaps, for a pharaoh’s tomb. Installing their artwork on the walls of a local library for a student art show. Maybe traveling to the nearest pond or stream to take water samples, collect invertebrates, and analyze the water quality in the ecosystems surrounding their school. Or interacting in the community by delivering supplies collected from generous families to a local school for underserved children and volunteering to play and interact with the students. Or creating a to-scale two-dimensional image of a blue whale outside on the grass or the parking lot to learn about whales, not to mention all the mathematical calculations required to turn a drawing on paper into a life-sized image. Or maybe, after several days of research and weeks of study, they dress in powdered wigs and knee breeches to enact a Constitutional Convention, each student representing a colony, as a designated George Washington mediates from the podium.


7th grade Constitutional Convention brings historical debate to life

These “free-range” learning experiences are about physical and mental engagement, cooperation, communication, and real life experience. Increasingly, educators, researchers, and students grasp the value of active, engaged learning away from the traditional desk. Classroom and campus spaces that support a shift in teaching and learning offer the opportunity to maximize learning through creating meaningful experiences. 


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