If only going to school was as exciting as attending Hogwarts, the mythical castle in J. K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series. There, young wizards and witches can’t wait to start learning about all things magical, like deadly curses and advanced potion making. Unfortunately, the experience for non-magical children (Muggles, Rowling calls them) continues to be quite different. Being at school often means sitting long hours, listening to lectures, and facing a pile of standardized tests.
Of course, real kids can’t spend their days practicing spells (rather than spelling lists), or stopping evil forces from overtaking their cherished school of magic. Yet Rowling’s series reminds us that children are natural born learners and nothing can stop them in their quest for knowledge once they’re allowed to experience the mysteries of the world directly.
I recently visited a school where very young Muggles have this experience. There’s a new preschool, Drumlin Farm Community Preschool, at Audubon’s Wildlife Sanctuary in Massachusetts. The children learn by doing, and their day is spent mostly outside. Even in winter, three to six year olds arrive bundled up. They begin each session outdoors, ready to explore snowy fields, and interact with a dynamic, living ecosystem. The children have purpose, are empowered to participate in chores, and help run a real farm.
Like Hogwarts, there’s magic and mystery that intrigues young developing minds. Consider learning about pollination and bees. Most children are taught to fear bees, but these kids seek out bee-covered plants, observe the busy activity of a hive, and get to see how pollen gets miraculously transformed into gooey sweet honey. They milk cows, collect eggs, churn butter, and then combine ingredients like potions to bake cakes and cookies. They observe tadpoles in a nearby pond and in the aquarium in their classroom, and watch them magically morph into frogs. Snakes and owls, animals that populate the pages of Rowling’s books, are also frequent visitors. In fact, there are a myriad of fascinating creatures from Wildlife visits that are tied in with a natural science curriculum.
The children read poems, write stories, and make art pertaining to all their amazing, but real experiences. Like Hogwarts, there’s also danger around every bend, poisonous plants like oak and ivy that the children identify and warn one other about. There are sad moments when animals die and miraculous moments to affirm life, like welcoming the recent births of lambs, kid goats, and a calf named Tilly.
These preschoolers are learning basic concepts of biology, chemistry, geography, and developing their math and language skills, but without the usual moans and foot dragging that we see in many American classrooms. These kids aren’t stuck indoors, required to sit and keep quiet all day, and they aren’t led through standard study guides or told to complete daily worksheets. During my visit, one boy brandished his collection of sticks at me, told me what trees they came from, and next to him was a girl who opened her hand to reveal seeds she was bringing back to their classroom. She told me she would plant them and they could watch the stages of how they grow. They collect rocks, twigs, feathers, pieces of fur, leafs, insects. One boy dragged an enormous branch from off the path. Wonderful! His teacher shouted. What leaves are those? Not the typical drop that – you might lose an eye.
Back inside their classroom, I see that the children have made a museum and laboratory of all the things they’ve collected from the great habitat around them. Lessons are designed around what these young explorers and scientists have discovered. I also watch them settle into lunch, have some reading time, play quietly, socialize, work on projects, but I’m equally struck with what I’m not seeing. Unlike most classrooms I’ve visited, there’s an absence of strong rules and discipline. A few boys are active and louder than most of the group, but they all seem focused, rested, and in good spirits having been outdoors.
I asked one teacher about this. “Sure,” she explained, “at the start of the year there are always a few challenges. But soon they settle in and really take to all the exciting activities. For whatever reason, we haven’t needed a time-out chair or behavior management charts.” What she told me fits with recent research. Children who get at least fifteen minutes of recess a day show fewer behavior problems. Further, in some cases, regular outdoor time reduces ADHD symptoms at levels similar to stimulant medication.
I drove away envying these young Harry Potters and the adventures in store for them in the days to come. The difference between fictional schools of magic and real-life learning needn’t be so great, I thought. The magic is all around us, right outside our doors and windows. Maybe classrooms need to get back to nature. There, they can recapture some of the enchantment that drives true learning.