Nature's Classrooms

What happened on your school’s property in the years, decades and centuries before the school was built?

Perhaps the community’s earliest settlers built houses using wood from the species of trees still growing on the site. Maybe those settlers skirmished with Native Americans. What if someone notable in American history was born in the community?

Whatever happened can form the foundation of a lesson plan for an outdoor history course that can tie local events to broader historical themes.

According to Herbert W. Broda writing in his book, Moving the Classroom Outdoors: Schoolyard-Enhanced Learning in Action, teachers investigating the site of one school discovered that Civil War troops had once camped there.

Broda recommends studying the site’s natural features as well as its history. What indigenous plant and animal life inhabit the site? Why here? That’s a science lesson, if not a course.

Make a flowerbed and plant some daffodils this spring. William Wordsworth wrote a poem entitled “Daffodils.” It begins with the familiar line: “I wandered lonely as a cloud.” That’s a lesson in English
poetry. An outdoor classroom could support an entire course on pastoral poetry, a genre devoted to the countryside.

Add to these examples outdoor lessons in agriculture, botany, wildlife, environmental science and so on.

You don’t have to make up new lessons and courses to move classes outside. Just move an arithmetic or mathematics class outside and enjoy the weather.

According to Broda, research shows that “a mix of outdoor instruction and indoor teaching leads to improved achievement.”

“Every school we design today incorporates one or several opportunities for outdoor education,” says Stephan C. Howick, a landscape architect and associate with Celina, Ohio-based Fanning Howey, an architectural firm with a specialty in pre-K–12 and higher education. “It’s about getting kids outside. Between high fructose corn syrup and video games, kids today don’t have a chance.”

Start with a committee

While it can be as simple as just taking a class outside now and then, today’s approach to outdoor classes often involves building a program and enhancing outdoor locations to accommodate regular classes.

Accomplishing that requires broad-based support from the administration, teachers and students, as well as the custodial staff and parents.

Broda recommends forming a planning committee that draws members from each of these groups. Consider specialists such as naturalists and building contractors as committee members, too. Invite neighboring residents to participate, or at least inform them about your plans.

The committee should begin work by pursuing two goals, continues Broda. First, it should develop a long-range outdoor plan for the school. Second, it should identify one or two small projects to get the program underway.

Broda warns against plans that are too large and ambitious, noting that it is better to succeed with one or two limited projects than to fail at a large one and risk discouraging everyone.

Topics for the committee to consider go beyond specific projects. They include fund-raising to aid in the purchase of materials; construction issues, planting and landscaping, and fitting the curricula to the outdoor setting. Broda suggests assigning small subcommittees to explore each of these topics.

Playing around

Elementary students, of course, are frequently more interested in playing outside than studying it. For them, Howick designs ground-based play structures. These include seesaws, slides, swings and climbers that you can access from the ground instead of elevated platforms.

“This makes the entire playground accessible to all of the kids, including those with disabilities able to use some of the structures,” Howick says.

Play is key to outdoor learning for pre-K–5 students, continues Howick. “Play introduces kids to their bodies,” he says. “There is a continuum. They learn to rock, bounce and swing. Then they begin to use the upper body and develop strength.

“Beyond individual training, you begin to teach cooperation. One student wants to swing but can’t get going, so another student pushes. Cooperation leads to games and competitions.”

Designing outdoor spaces

For older students, pretty much any subject can go outside for class — as long as the weather cooperates. You do, however, need an appropriate space.

Broda recommends conducting a site inventory. What exists on your site? What areas will function as outdoor classrooms? Rough out a site plan.

The first site enhancement, he writes, is to locate a teaching/meeting area somewhere away from heavily traveled paths, playgrounds and prospective expansion plans for the site — but usually adjacent to the school building.

A teaching/meeting area can accommodate a class or serve as a starting point.
When a class moves outside, for instance, the teacher and students go first to the teaching/meeting area. There, the teacher explains the purpose of the outdoor class and the physical boundaries — stay within the circle made by these trees. The teacher will also pass out any supplies required to carry out the activity.

Perhaps the class will study wildlife indigenous to school grounds. Maybe an art class will take on a landscape project. Whatever the class, it all starts at the teaching/meeting area.

Teaching/meeting areas provide some form of seating. Some schools use picnic tables. Others use logs or landscape features such as small grassy mounds.

Professional advice and volunteers

The teaching/meeting area will spawn other projects: a garden here, picnic tables over there and bird feeders up there.

Maintenance arises as a major stumbling block for outdoor learning spaces. Grass grows. Someone has to cut it. Weeds infest gardens, and someone has to pull them.

“Once you develop a couple of outside areas, you will need someone in the school district to manage the important work of maintenance,” Howick says. “This should be someone that appreciates the outdoor classrooms and wants to preserve and improve them.

“Athletic booster clubs are composed of volunteers that take care of a district’s athletic facilities. You don’t have that kind of help for outdoor spaces. If you are developing outdoor areas, you may need some professional advice as well as volunteers to help establish and maintain them.”

Professionals might include local landscaping firms, employees of home stores like Home Depot or the green superintendent at a local golf course.

You can also contact your conservation district, a local unit of government that works with landowners to manage natural resources at the local level.

Volunteers might include master gardeners, who can advise you on developing and planting outdoor areas, adds Howick. There are nearly 100,000 master gardeners in the U.S. These volunteers have been trained in taxonomy, plant pathology, soil health, sustainable gardening, managing pests and plant diseases.

Chances are, some of your students will have master gardener family members that might be willing to help.

It’s a different world

Generations ago, youngsters roamed freely through their neighborhoods, local wooded areas and parks with little formal supervision. Establishing a connection with the natural world outside came, well, naturally.

Today, all of that has changed dramatically. The contemporary world requires that parents and teachers supervise young people constantly, as they participate in tightly organized activities. Those activities and the lure of smart phones and tablets threaten to disconnect young people from the natural world.

Outdoor playgrounds and classrooms can help overcome that problem by enabling students to build and sustain an appreciation and understanding of nature. 

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