Lower school physical education utilizes all of the outdoor spaces the Hillsborough campus has to offer
As lower school PE teacher Zubin Mobedshahi ’03 reflects on the nature that surrounds us at Nueva and his approach to teaching, he shares anecdotes that highlight why Nueva continues to play an important role in his life. Zubin was a student at Nueva for nine years, and he is now in his ninth year teaching at Nueva…talk about being a lifer!
There’s this idea in the Reggio Emilia approach to teaching that the environment—the physical space—is the third teacher, in addition to the parent and the educator.
The variety of outdoor spaces on our Hillsborough campus takes this to the next level. It’s not just the number of spaces or the acreage, but also the texture of those spaces—the sloping hills, stairs, trails, meadows, sports field, playgrounds, boulders, and forests, not to mention the weather—that offer so much novelty and opportunity for our students to grab onto. When we’re jogging up a steep narrow trail in the woods, I forget we’re in the middle of the Bay Area. We’re engulfed by the sounds of birds or the wind. At Nueva, the ability to connect to nature plays a profound role in our students’ experiences and development. And beyond any distinct course, class, activity, or discipline, the campus landscape is where it all happens. Most every memory, experience, passing period between class, and exploration of the wilderness (sanctioned or otherwise) is enriched by the circuitous footpaths and sprawling layout of our Hillsborough community.
Nueva's Hillsborough campus is uniquely situated to provide so many nooks and scaffolding opportunities throughout the course of a student’s time here, which is potentially 10 years. This campus holds a sort of chronological arc to everyone's development that is unique to each person and equally unforgettable.
And while intentionally designed PE spaces—such as the GCC or upper field—lend themselves to so many activities and creative games we are all familiar with, there is something magical that can happen when students are in a new space with fewer predetermined functions. All of a sudden, creativity can flourish and adventure takes form in unpredictable ways. For example, we have this hill right next to the upper field, which some students have dubbed, “Mud Mountain.” Though it is just a hill to me and not terribly steep, to a 5-year-old, it holds so much intrigue. To watch a child navigate up this hill, get halfway up, and grip a tree trunk for support, there’s an edge-of-your-seat intensity that’s no less profound to them than Shackleton’s arctic exploration is to us adults. Students describe their ability to reach the top as a matter of triumph: a stage on the path of a hero. And I agree with our students: walking up a steep, uneven hillside might be one of the greatest activities in life.
The texture of the spaces brings out a certain amount of novelty that keeps things interesting. With Mud Mountain, once students reach the top, they’ll push the limits of what they can do on the hill. They’ll start bowling or try hula hooping down. I’ve had to ask them not to roll rocks down the hill—though I would be hypocritical to not admit that when I was a student… never mind.
It’s not uncommon for students to find more creative ways to use the spaces, and I always like to go with their ideas. Students come to understand that learning isn't happening in one designated location, but rather that it is encompassing. John Dewey once said, “Education is not preparation for life; it is life itself.” I would add Gary Syder’s: “Nature is not a place to visit. It is home.”
Whether it's physical education or environmental studies, or inspiration for art or music or biology class, there's no limiting the disciplines that can engage with our outdoor environment. Nueva’s layout provides so many organic opportunities for these subjects to spill over into one another to allow students to make connections across disciplines.
A number of years ago, third graders in my PE class, we were drawing blood vessels on the cement with chalk. The heart, arteries, arterioles, and capillaries to venules to veins. Looking at the branching patterns, one student asked, "Does capillary mean river?" And someone else said, "No, it looks more like tree branches."
Since I didn’t know where the word came from, I looked it up on Etymonline and learned that capillary comes from the Latin word capillaris which means hair. When I shared this with the class, a student replied, "Oh, like angel hair pasta. Is that why angel hair pasta is called capellini?"
Our students have the capacity to make novel, interesting, and insightful connections that often strike me as beautiful and profound. Our understanding is expanded in some small sense because of this shared experience– a new meaning and significance. The ability to make connections across subjects shows that one is in possession of critical thinking skills and the ability to utilize working memory in the service of understanding and mapping the world.
Little moments like this pop up all the time. I used to bring along a medical model of the brain on runs through the campus and we’d stop and learn about neuroanatomy and how it related to something in the moment. Years later, a student referenced the run by saying, “I guess I used my hippocampus because I still remember the brain run.”
Another time we were on the I-Lab plaza running laps around the library. A student asked if we could run up the stairs and over the I-Lab. And that is how the “I-Lap” was born.
These moments help to summarize some of the ways that I see the skills students learn in my classes transcending just PE. Building endurance (we like to run!), coordination, strength, speed, agility, and developing core strength are all part and parcel of the discipline, and we learn about why they’re important and how to cultivate them. I also hope to instill in my students a lifelong enjoyment of physical activity. Nueva is a very cerebral community and I want students to understand how to connect to the physical part of themselves: this sense of embodiment, the capacity to be self-possessed and firmly in the seat of their own conscious existence, to understand interoception and proprioception. We learn about antifragility and how it relates to physical growth, mental toughness, and emotional courage.
It is a great privilege and joy to have a job where I’m outdoors and I get to watch children grow stronger and better connected with each other. And year after year after year, the downside is they all gradually become taller than I am, which is fine. They're pretty gracious about it. I feel so incredibly really lucky to do what I do here at Nueva.