Children want to learn. But Carolin Rückert had to witness in her job as a teacher how highly motivated children at school lose their enthusiasm for learning. She wanted to change this—and founded the region’s first outdoor school in Ladenburg.

Mira shakes her hand. She wants to get rid of the moss that is stuck on it with glue. Next to her sits Moritz, breaking thin branches into small pieces, which will become spines for his hedgehog he is making from brown cardboard. Luke stands behind them with a load of sand in his baggy jumper. “That might be a bit much.” Katharina Edin, his teacher, laughs. Children are doing handicrafts all over the place: on the wall, under the large oak tree, sitting, standing, with moss, branches, feathers and sand.

Handicrafts with natural products, outdoors—just an average day at the Draußenschule outdoor school.

It is an autumn day at the Draußenschule, the outdoor school in Ladenburg. Not a school outing or holiday programme, but a normal Thursday morning. Today’s timetable: Social Studies and Art. The classroom: a piece of forest, the municipal Waldpark, in Ladenburg. On other days the classroom is the garden in the schoolyard, a market, a rubbish dump or a museum—just outdoors and not within the same four walls all day. Outdoors may mean in nature, but not necessarily. It means out in the world and at the heart of life. Children learn maths at the market stall and social studies on the farm when they attend the outdoor school. “As realistically as possible,” Carolin explains, “because this way they not only acquire knowledge, but also learn what they need it for.”

“We have to organise everything ourselves,” Carolin Rückert says, from lunch all the way to school equipment.

Carolin is the founder and director of the outdoor school. She enrolled the first 25 primary school pupils here in 2021. Two years later they are already 35. She wants to take on a maximum of 40. There is great interest in the independent school that breaks new ground in education—and has had to overcome a few obstacles to do so. The hurdles were much higher than Carolin had thought in the beginning, she admits. “Yes, I was perhaps a little naive.” But above all, she was very motivated to make a difference. She wanted to create a place for children that would make learning fun and would encourage them to discover the world—and not just to sit still.

The teacher had taught biology, German and history at a secondary school for a long time, then switched to teacher training and later to a primary school in Mannheim. There she experienced how first-graders came to school highly motivated and how quite a few of them lost their enthusiasm for learning after half a year. “I found that frightening. Children want to learn, they are curious and eager to learn. And we manage to lose them—because of certain rules, rigid structures, far too many worksheets and far too little opportunity for physical movement.”

Children want to learn, they are curious and eager to learn. And we manage to lose them—because of certain rules, rigid structures, far too many worksheets and far too little opportunity for physical movement.

Carolin Rückert

She wanted to change things, on a small scale at first, and trained as a forest educator. Every fortnight, she took a group out into the countryside for four hours. Parents happily supported the idea and the children joined enthusiastically. Carolin realised how much they enjoyed learning outside the classroom—especially those children, who find it hard to sit still or have learning difficulties. She began to dream of her own school, following the example of the Udeskole, an outdoor school common in Scandinavia.

A couple of raindrops… don’t bother anyone at the outdoor school.

A postcard on a door inside the outdoor school says “Machen ist wie wollen, nur krasser” (doing is like wanting, only more incredible). The school building is a former clubhouse on the edge of the park in Ladenburg, transformed into an inviting, open place by means of wood, plenty of light and plenty of work. The children are here in socks or slippers. They are scurrying up the stairs into the room under the roof now, because there, sitting on the large carpet, they’ll discuss how the following lessons will be organised, who will be in which group and when, and where lessons will take place. There is no fixed class structure in the outdoor school; the pupils usually learn together. The children just beginning school are kept in one group only for the German and maths lessons  until they have mastered the basics.

Indoors, outdoors, all pupils together and in small groups—learning is extremely varied at the outdoor school.

Carolin quickly realised how exhausting it was to be not only wanting, but to actually turn her idea into reality. Even the mayor of Ladenburg, Stefan Schmutz, warned her: “He told me that he supports me, but that I was about to climb quite a mountain.” She began writing a draft for her outdoor school after work. After nine months it was ready—and the Ministry of Education in Baden-Württemberg rejected it. Their judgement was that it bore no special educational purpose and no unique selling point. Carolin didn’t give up. She wrote a new draft while the excavators were already working on the school building and the first parents were registering their children. Carolin combined her idea of the outdoor school with media lessons and computer science to produce a new draft. For her, this was no contradiction, but a necessity: “Today’s children need to be able to handle media.” Community-based and real-life learning, in touch with nature and media-savvy—these are the pillars on which the outdoor school rests and that also convinced the Ministry.

They were always in a rush in my old school. Here it’s not as hectic and exhausting

Schülerin Lina

A whole family of hedgehogs is now lying on the bench in front of the school building, left to dry in the autumn sun. It’s break time. A group of pupils is kicking a ball through the autumn leaves, another plays horse farm. Apart from hedgehogs, mushrooms are currently the big topic that permeates all subjects. The children learn about different varieties—and then collect them in the forest, guided by experts. And they have made a stop-motion film. It is a tutorial on how everyone can grow their own mushrooms at home using a mushroom box. The pupils are not only taught knowledge, they also pass it on. This approach is termed deeper learning. Carolin wants to incorporate it increasingly into everyday school life.

Discussing together who will be in which group and when.

The last builders left the construction site on 11 September 2021, leaving behind a beautifully refurbished school building. The first enrolment ceremony in the outdoor school took place already two days later. The school’s catchment area is Ladenburg and the surrounding municipalities. “Parents have to really want to enrol their child here,” says Carolin. Although officially recognised, the school will receive financial support only from the fourth year of operation onwards. “We charge school fees based on the parents’ income. And we have to organise everything ourselves.” This is why the parents have to lend a hand. They distribute lunches, organise clubs, clean and provide transport services. Carolin is not aiming for the school to become state-approved, although it would mean some financial and staffing benefits. “We want to retain our freedom in terms of content.”

An art lesson at the outdoor school means discovering the world rather than sitting still.

More and more children from other schools are being admitted to the outdoor school—like Lina. She suffers from dyslexia. “They were always in a rush in my old school. I couldn’t keep up and made lots of mistakes.” Here she gets the time she needs. “And nobody laughs at me,” she quickly adds. Now that the pressure is off, Lina enjoys going to school again. There are no grades at the outdoor school. There are competency reports instead. However, the learning content is based on the Baden-Württemberg curriculum. “We keep in touch with public schools and secondary schools,” says Carolin. A transition to another type is therefore possible at any time. A school day starts at 9 am and lasts until 3 pm. It is a long day, “but after that there’s no more homework,” Carolin explains. Lina feels that the day is much shorter here, even though she is at school even longer. “It’s not as hectic and exhausting,” she says. There are far fewer pupils, everything is much quieter and they can play outdoors and not just in a cement-covered schoolyard.

Setting up a camp or making a fire. Children stride forward easily at the outdoor school.

Practical courses are on the timetable in the afternoon. Such as media lessons, handicrafts or the intergenerational workshops, which are run by parents, clubs or committed citizens: chess, improvisation theatre, experiments or the Into the Wild class. This class is just gathering at the courtyard gate when it starts to drizzle. The children don’t even seem to notice. “We only go in when it’s really raining,” Nora explains. The children trudge off to their camp in the forest. They want to make a fire today. Quite difficult when everything in the forest is damp. But half an hour later, a small fire becomes visible between the trees—around it are seven children, beaming proudly.

Carolin Rücker has written a book about experiences and insights from the outdoor school together with Matthias Kerr, a father from the outdoor school community. It will be published in June 2024: Natürlich lernen: Schule neu denken: Was Eltern für eine kindgerechte und lebensnahe Schulzeit tun können – Impulse aus der Draußenschule, Kösel Verlag, ISBN: 978-3-466-31198-9


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