Supporting Students’ Learning and Social and Emotional Well-being
By Sarojani Rohan
With so many parents seeking out positive learning experiences for their children, teachers and administrators are often asked just what it is that sets their school apart. At Mount Madonna School (MMS), located atop a mountain overlooking the Monterey Bay, the inspiring natural environment of 375 acres of redwood forests and oak meadows is one significant and unique offering for students and their families.
To enhance its pillars of academic excellence, positive character development and creative self-expression that infuse all of the classes (Pre/K through grade 12), MMS maintains a particularly successful buddy program to support students’ social and emotional well-being and cross-age learning.
Imagine, if you will, a typical morning for the preschool and kindergarten children arriving at MMS. These students are met by loving and welcoming teachers into bright, beautiful and spacious classrooms. The low student-to-teacher ratio allows every student the proper attention and energy, both educationally and personally, as they begin the school day.
Mornings frequently involve a hike through the well-maintained wooded trails with their teachers!
Watching deer grazing on the hillside is a familiar sight, as are the gentle, wild turkeys that roam freely through the meadows. So much is learned during these hikes: earth sciences, biology, conversational skills and how to really “listen” to each other and the environment. They also learn how to walk safely with a partner, in a line (when appropriate). Wild grasses are observed and named, animal prints are identified, and students learn the names and growth patterns of much that exists within the surrounding redwood ecology that is, effectively, their outdoor classroom.
In addition, interpersonal relationships are being formed and those all-important social skills learned and practiced to help teachers and students together in creating a thriving learning community. Certainly, there is abundant research suggesting that cross-age relationships – (modified during this year to observe Centers for Disease Control and California Department of Education-recommended COVID-19 health and safety protocols) and cooperative, social learning are a positive growth factor in a child’s school experience. And let’s not overlook the health factors.
In today’s fast-paced lifestyle, many children lack the opportunity to spend much time outdoors, let alone participate in nature hikes which test their physical strength and stamina; and the buddy system is certainly beneficial for encouragement and enjoyment when facing ANY challenge!
MMS’ Pre/K and their elementary school buddies are a sturdy bunch from all their walks and adventures during outdoor learning and play time.
In a world moving very fast for 3 to 6-year-olds (and even some adults), time in the fresh air and sunshine with a big buddy, hiking through fields and forests to the accompanying sound of birdsong, is a great way for a child to build a relationship, not only with another person, but with nature itself. It is through these early outdoor “lessons” on compassion, interconnectedness and stewardship, that students learn to see the planet as their friend – to be studied and learned from, enjoyed and cared for, with reverence and respect.
◊ Sarojani Rohan is the co-founder and former director of Mount Madonna’s preschool and kindergarten program. She currently is a published poet and writer who still finds inspiration from hikes outdoors with a buddy!