A Minnesota kindergarten program takes learning outside

Students listen as an adult reads them a book outside.
Kindergarten teacher Ellen Dischinger reads a book to her outdoor class at Gatewood Elementary, part of Hopkins Public Schools, on Jan. 11.
Kerem Yucel for MPR News

Just after 10 a.m. on a recent balmy January morning in Minnetonka, three classes of kindergarten students from Gatewood Elementary have gathered outside, bundled in their snowsuits, to start their morning circle time. 

This is the first year of the school’s outdoor kindergarten program. All 75 kindergarten students in the school, part of the Hopkins school district, participate. Next year they’re hoping to have first graders in the program as well. And by the 2023-2024 school year, they want to start transitioning the entire elementary to an outdoor, play-and-inquiry-based, environment-focused school. 

A day in outdoor kindergarten

On that January day, the classes started by reading a book while sitting in the snow. They split up into groups for playtime, which involved heading to the outdoor mud kitchen to eat icicles, building a fort out of sticks or jumping on the mounds of snow by the parking lot. 

“We’re really shifting our mindset as much as possible,” said kindergarten teacher Katie Schmidt. “Like, how could this thing we’re doing be done outdoors?”

Create a More Connected Minnesota

MPR News is your trusted resource for the news you need. With your support, MPR News brings accessible, courageous journalism and authentic conversation to everyone - free of paywalls and barriers. Your gift makes a difference.

She said the outdoor learning varies from day to day and is flexible based on the weather.

“Play is such a big part of our learning,” Schmidt said, “Sometimes we add items — like sometimes we’ll bring sleds over here. And you can see that they find their own things to play [with],” she said. “They’re working on snowballs or trying to cut snowballs in half — throwing them up in the air and doing ninja moves to get them cut in half. Earlier we went on a little tour here to look for animal tracks.”

Schmidt said she and the two other Gatewood kindergarten instructors get outdoors whenever it makes sense. Most days they’re outside about 50 percent of the time. They can’t do as much in the winter when wearing mittens means you can’t hold a pencil. But she said the commitment to being outside whenever possible pays off in other ways, regardless of the weather. 

“I find that just moving from location to location and being able to see far distances and move as you need allows the kids to be able to really focus when I need them to focus for smaller periods of time,” Schmidt said. “We get a lot accomplished in small periods of time.” 

Environmental learning

A big part of the school’s transition to an outdoor program is being led by its newly hired naturalist, Jim Ikhaml (or Mr. Ike), who spends his days roaming the school hallways, teaching outside and sometimes in the school’s greenhouse. He’s always looking for ways to get his students to engage with nature — no matter what that might look like. 

A group of students once found the leg of a deer that had apparently been dragged onto the campus by a coyote or a dog. The kids put the leg in his office, “which is awesome,” Ikhaml said. 

Ikhaml has long taught elementary classes. But this year, as a naturalist, his job is focused on transitioning Gatewood Elementary’s facilities, curriculum and programs to be more environment and outdoor focused. 

“If I can teach a standard — a Minnesota state standard that the teachers are required to teach anyways — in an outdoor or naturalist sort of way, then it justifies their time to me, because I’ve covered material they would need to cover, and I’m doing it in a way that might engage the students a little bit more and fit into the vision of Gatewood,” Ikhaml said.  

In first grade, for example, Ikhaml is doing a camping unit: planning an imaginary trip that includes math and science standards by calculating the cost of supplies, reading maps, identifying plants and animals on hikes and taking notes in journals. 

“Within all of that, I’ll have covered three to four standards within one outdoor theme,” Ikhaml said. “If I'm really good at my job, in a couple years everyone will have an idea of how to do things outdoors and involve nature. I’ll have lessons available to everyone and hopefully I’ll be out of a job because it will take off on its own.” 

‘Kids are so happy’

Gatewood Principal George Nolan says that while he hears many colleagues talking about dealing with unusual student behaviors as a result of the pandemic, he’s not noticing that with the kindergarten students in his school. 

“We have not seen any behavior. Kids are so happy,” said Nolan. “Some of it is we have a phenomenal teaching group, but some of it is the outdoor program. They get so much energy out. They get the opportunity to be outside and play and learn in a way that’s not test-oriented.”

 A man poses for a photo.
Gatewood Elementary Principal George Nolan on Jan. 11.
Kerem Yucel for MPR News

Nolan says family surveys have shown parents are happy with the new program, and he’s even had people outside the district express interest in enrolling. 

For his staff, getting kids outside as much as possible is becoming an integral part of their teaching process. 

“Kids have a natural curiosity already, and the outdoors offers so many opportunities to foster that curiosity and that exploring,” Ikhaml said. “I’m getting them hooked into something that’s around them all the time. If I can plant that seed of noticing what’s going on around them and how to take care of them, that’s going to affect them for the rest of their lives.”