Learning Under Mother Nature's Roof
Wednesday, May 11, 2016
By Christina Mimms, SAIS
Many schools might consider free play or recess an optional activity. With a full day of curriculum-related goals and academics, testing, and sometimes a fire drill or an assembly, teachers barely have time to get their students to lunch and a restroom break. Given recent discussions about the importance of unstructured activities, fresh air, and the need to educate the whole child, many schools not only ensure their students enjoy daily outdoor time, but they have greatly enhanced their outdoor spaces to make them that much more inviting to students and teachers alike.
At Palisades Episcopal School in Charlotte, NC, teachers take advantage of the mostly good year-round weather to hold classes outside frequently, give students regular recess, and work on outdoor projects together. “Students are happier outside and they’re more focused when they’re back inside,” said Head of School Kerin Hughes. “It provides them with such energy and stamina.”
Located near Lake Wylie, the school is an Audubon Gold Seal Community with a campus that includes walking trails, outdoor learning spaces, outdoor lunch tables, gardens, and playgrounds. Much of the enhanced outdoor area is the result of a recent redesign project that wholly involved students from 5th through 8th grades. With 8th graders leading the work, students were asked to contribute any and all ideas toward outdoor improvement. Their suggestions included a yoga space, a pool, an in-ground trampoline, using hollowed-out trees as planters, an outdoor bowling alley, and a giant movie screen. Students met for about two hours each week to plan and discuss, often with community partners and professionals in landscape and exterior design.
“We all got to work together and see everyone’s ideas,” said 8th grader Sam Gilbert. Students were required to create a design board and a scale drawing.
“The scale drawing proved to be a lot harder than I thought,” said 8th grader Andrew DeWeese, who quickly learned that some ideas – such as the trampoline – were a no-go. “But it was a great leadership opportunity and a great way to show the mission statement through our creativity.”
“What they came up with was great,” Hughes said. “It’s been a lot of fun to have students involved and be a part of the process.”
At Savannah Country Day School in Savannah, GA, students of different ages enjoy three separate playgrounds, the newest of which has a crushed rubber surface and was installed two years ago for 1st through 5th grade students. With 30 minutes of recess and 30 minutes of PE class each day, students partake in a solid hour of outdoor play. “I’m a big believer in that, and there is a positive correlation between recess and academic achievement,” said Head of School Kef Wilson. “It’s important for kids to have unstructured play time and not be under teacher scrutiny all the time. We don’t use recess as a punishment or an incentive.”
In addition to recess and PE, lower school students also venture outside to work in an indoor/outdoor science lab that includes vegetable gardens, composting, a chicken coop, turtles, a greenhouse, and an animal care room. “It makes the study more real and more hands-on to see things in action like plant growth,” Wilson said.
Hancock Day School in Savannah, GA, also takes a hands-on approach to early learning, a change initiated two years ago by Head of School Sandy Pearle. “We needed a more inquiry-based approach to learning in early childhood – more discovery and exploration, and less time at desks and doing worksheets,” she said.
Taking advantage of some open space next to the primary building, the school added a ball run, a water run, balancing scales, a wood deck, picnic tables, a walking path, two Plexiglas easels for drawing, and a worm farm for composting. Pre-K and Kindergarten students visit every day as part of their centers, and other students use the spaces as well. The school is working studiously to add outdoor learning spaces for 3rd through 8th grades but has already built eight different gardens that students help maintain. They grow beets, carrots, lettuce, kale, herbs, and tomatoes, and also oversee a beehive. They hope to incorporate these food items into the school cafeteria as the supply increases. Hancock Day also is pursuing certification as a Nature Explore Classroom and sending faculty to specialized workshops for outdoor education.
Students at Hilltop Montessori School in Birmingham, AL, snack regularly on the items in their school gardens, which comprise one part of their many outdoor spaces on its 8-acre campus. As a LEED certified green school, their classrooms bask in a lot of natural light and often hold classes in outdoor spaces. The campus includes a greenhouse, hydroponic vegetable gardens, a walking trail with native plants, playground spaces, a bike track, a number of trees fit for climbing, and an apiary, which is tended by a student who is a certified beekeeper. The school is certified by the National Wildlife Federation’s Certified Wildlife Habitat program.
Both students and faculty have experienced the benefits of utilizing their outdoor spaces, according to Head of School Michele Wilensky. “Our kids do so much academic work and sometimes they just need a break,” she said. “Going outside complements their day and they can regroup again. Outdoor time helps their concentration and teachers have noticed a difference when it’s time to focus.”
Students eat their snacks and lunches outside, weather permitting. Teachers in 4th through 6th grades often will hold their classes outside or take their students to work in the gardens, where they grow cherry tomatoes, broccoli, and lettuce. The school is working on plans to build a teaching kitchen.
Younger students also appreciate a breath of fresh air. “If the toddlers are having a bad day, sometimes they’ll just go outside early, have snack, and take a break,” Wilensky said.
Physical activity, the development of problem-solving and social skills, and opportunity for discovery are just some of the benefits of outdoor time in school, be it recess or actual class held under Mother Nature’s roof. Creating these spaces on school campuses allow both children and adults to shake up the classroom routine, and to instill the skill of imagination.
For additional information on the subject of outdoor time, check out the following articles:
The secret to saving American education is something kids have been doing for centuries
Encouraging Nature Play
How schools ruined recess — and four things needed to fix it