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The Great Outdoor Learning Environment

The Great Outdoor Learning Environment

Education institutions that create outdoor learning spaces can enhance hands-on opportunities for students.

Many education institutions are embracing sustainability in their facilities and curriculum as they look for innovative ways to use resources more efficiently and help students learn. At the same time, health professionals have been sounding the alarm about the growing problem of obesity among young people who are likely to spend more time sitting inside glued to a screen than they do participating in activities outdoors.

Those factors are among the reasons that schools are being encouraged to get their students out of classrooms and into the great outdoors to provide young people with more firsthand opportunities to experience and appreciate nature.

Much of the impetus for making outdoor education a priority comes from the federal government: The America’s Great Outdoors Initiative seeks to encourage conservation and reconnect citizens to the nation’s natural resources; "Let’s Move" is an anti-obesity effort launched by First Lady Michelle Obama; "Take It Outside," a U.S. Department of Interior’s Bureau of Land Management (BLM) program, urges students to learn about public lands.

"Almost every K-12 school has some outdoor space that faculty could use (or already do) to breathe life into concepts learned in the classroom," states "Planning School Grounds for Outdoor Learning," a report from the National Clearinghouse for Educational Facilities (NCEF).

Sedentary habits

According to "Take it Outside," unstructured outdoor activity among young people is down by half compared with the previous generation. Children in the United States average 30 minutes a week of unregulated time outdoors, while their exposure to electronic media is almost 45 hours a week. The number of outdoor environmental education programs offered in schools has been decreasing in the last decade, the BLM says.

The America’s Great Outdoors Initiative report notes that young people spend most of their time at school or in formal afterschool activities; "less and less of it is spent outdoors," the report says. It also says that too few schools have incorporated environmental education into their curriculums. For many students, "the only nature you see during the school day is in the images of your textbooks or the window of your school bus," the report says.

The report recommended that schools expand outdoor education programs so that students have more opportunities for "hands-on, place-based learning experiences." It also urged schools to give students more chances to go outside during the school day "through curriculum-based activities, service-learning projects, and outdoor recess and P.E."

Use what you have

The type of outdoor learning space that a school can provide will depend on the amount of space and its characteristics.

"School grounds can include outdoor spaces adaptable to many types of activities," says the NCEF report. "They may be open-air porches adjacent to classrooms, art and science rooms, or cafeterias; and they may include various seating areas, such as amphitheaters, pavilions, steps, planters, benches or individual student-sized chairs."

Outdoor spaces enable students to learn more about nature and the environment, but they also can enhance other subject areas.

"Although most of what is done in an outdoor classroom relates to the environment, it is also an interactive opportunity for students and adults to learn how math, literature, history, art, and music are influenced by nature and our natural resources," according to Virginia Naturally, the state’s environmental education program.

Virginia Naturally identifies numerous types of outdoor classrooms: ponds, streams and wetlands; butterfly and wildflower gardens; agriculture gardens; bird and squirrel sanctuaries; composting and recycling areas; arboretums with native trees, shrubs, plants and nursery areas; weather stations; amphitheaters, shelters, nature trails and other structures; art gardens; and oyster gardens.

As is the case with most facility decisions, an outdoor learning space can be designed more effectively if plans for it are included as part of the initial site selection and development.

Outdoor elements

As more groups advocate for schools to establish outdoor classrooms, many educational and environmental organizations have put together recommendations for what should be included in such spaces. The Boston Schoolyard Initiative, a private-public partnership that includes the city government and its school system, recommends these strategies for schoolyards and outdoor learning spaces:

Schoolyard landscaping

-Have trees, shrubs and perennials planted in raised beds to protect them from soil compaction and erosion.

-Have a diverse array of trees and shrubs, which gives an outdoor learning space more educational value.

-Protect bulb and perennial plantings with a low fence. This deters students from walking or playing in the area.

Outdoor classroom planting beds

-Use plants that provide hands-on gardening opportunities from seed to harvest; annuals, not perennials.

-Planting beds should enable experimenting with various growing conditions, soil types and temperature.

-Install view windows to enable students to closely observe root growth.

-Make sure water access is nearby.

-Use a bed size that is 3 feet wide; this enables easy access for younger students.

-Provide a wide edge on the planting bed where students can sit, take notes and work.

-The space surrounding a planting bed should be large enough to accommodate an entire class.

Outdoor classroom seating

-Provide seating for a full class (up to 25 students).

-Provide seating for small groups of students to work together.

-Provide single seating where students can quietly observe their surroundings or collect data.

-Disperse seating throughout the area.

-For log seating, use durable wood species.

Outdoor classroom enhancements

-Bird feeders made by students.

-A labyrinth or maze to provide a calming activity for students.

-Outdoor musical instruments.

-Grid markings on tables or benches to enable students to measure, sort and count.

Maintenance issues

A schoolyard habitat may require special attention to make sure the grounds are properly maintained, according to the National Wildlife Federation:

Watering. For young plants to set their roots, regular watering is critical in the first few summers.

Weeding. This will help prevent invasive species from overtaking the grounds and help beneficial native plants thrive.

Feeders. If bird feeders and bird baths are part of the space, they must be filled and cleaned regularly.

Sidebar: Learn by Doing

When students at St. Coletta of Greater Washington head to the cafeteria, odds are that some of the vegetables they eat for lunch come from the garden on the grounds of the Washington, D.C., campus.

Since the school, which serves 275 students from the D.C. area with cognitive or multiple disabilities, moved to its new campus in 2006, it gradually has been adding outdoor learning spaces to provide students with hands-on activities that reinforce and complement what they learn inside the building. The campus now has a play area, water features, an amphitheater, an art wall, a pavilion, a large shaded area and picnic tables where students interact with nature.

A key element of the outdoor space, says Sharon Raimo, chief executive officer of the school, is the school’s garden.

"The kids are out there a lot," says Raimo. "The students do the gardening. We don’t have traditional science, but with the garden we are able to teach them about horticulture, how to grow things."

The students also are able to see how vegetables make their way from the garden to the lunch table.

"We have an 11-month school year," says Raimo. "That’s long enough for the kids to plant something, then be able to harvest it when it’s grown."

To take advantage of the garden’s success, St. Coletta has brought in a chef who helps the students transform their crops into delicious meals.

"We didn’t anticipate that we would have this fabulous chef to teach the kids how to prepare the food," says Raimo. "The only problem we have had is that we have too much produce left over."

Most of the students at St. Coletta are city dwellers and have had few chances to work in gardens and see how food grows. And, Raimo notes, because of their disabilities, they typically have meals provided for them without their participation. "This involves them more," she says. "Then, they go home and teach their families how to prepare the food."

The garden also has made students aware of fruits and vegetables they had not eaten before.

"Kids have gone home and ask for zucchini," Raimo says. "Before this, they might not have seen zucchini or known what it was."

Kennedy, staff writer, can be reached at [email protected].

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