In this article, we’ll take a step away from our eleven leaders and reach a bit further out, because there are many schools around the world who have used the opportunity the pandemic has provided to be outdoors more.
Pre-pandemic, many schools and districts in the U.S. added more recess time to their schedules - a necessary and important change.
But as we’ve seen since March, schools all over the world are using the outdoors more and more as classroom spaces. This not only gives students more time breathing air that isn’t circulated throughout the building and possibly exposing them to harmful illnesses, but it also lends itself to providing an excellent “third teacher”.
What better environment is there in which to, for example, learn about the environment?
Nature has long been sought after as a far more attractive conduit for learning. We’ll begin with just one school as an example, then share some innovative ideas we’ve seen for using the outdoors as a learning space regardless of grade-level or specialization.
We mentioned Fuji Yochien in the last article about indoor spaces, but the truth is that there is little dividing the indoor classroom space from the outdoor. They are infused together and often seen as one.
The thing that may have made this school famous, though, is usually the outdoor space. To be specific, it’s the roof.
There are sunroofs along the expanse of the building that provide lots of natural light for the indoor spaces in addition to the movable walls between the indoors and outdoors. These windows on the roof give children the opportunity to eavesdrop on lessons and activities in other parts of the building.
These large, inviting windows are seen throughout the rooftop space which is a mostly open area students use to run and play. There are several trees incorporated into the structure of the building (further adding to the feel of a combined indoor/outdoor space), and children (who always wear hardhats when using the enclosed rooftop space) can climb and play in them with confidence. There is secure netting enclosing the tree areas to assure that children who fall will do so at a safe distance.
The rooftop is fenced in, has access points with lovely circular enclosed stairways, uses some ladders and netted climbing areas, and there is (of course) a slide from the roof to the ground’s garden area.
There are places to stop and have a drink, rinse off mud or dirt accumulated in play, or fill a bucket to water plants.
There are atriums that can become enclosed spaces, outdoor seating for class discussions or snack breaks, and ropes everywhere for lots of climbing from the ground up.
Although allowing your students to run on the roof may not be within your grasp, there may be physical elements of your classroom or playground that can be harnessed to be more conducive to learning.
Many of us try to embrace the freedom given to students at Fuji Yochien when we do things like seek out changes such as flexible seating. Reforming education spaces follows that commitment to change into making choices that are even more innovative.
We want to give students environments that can be used as part of the learning process, not just a place to sit. Immersive environments go further than meeting a need. They provide curiosity and student-centered learning opportunities.
Practical Aspects of Outdoor Learning
The first thing we’ve always said when faced with actually marching our students outside to learn may be your first thought, too: “What about inclement weather?”
Many places that embrace outdoor learning have extreme weather that they are used to dressing for and dealing with year-round. For example, schools in Scandinavia include skiing in their physical education curriculum, and toddlers attending forest preschools have their naps outdoors in carriages while it’s snowing.
Clearly, if there’s a blizzard, they find a place indoors to hunker down, but for the most part, that’s the weather they experience a lot of the time. They just work with it.
Similarly, children who attend schools in the rain forest are used to sweating it out in the heat. They dress accordingly. They often go without shoes.
Students in the flood zones of South Asia attend schools on boats during monsoon season.
There are things people do to adjust.
But what about those of us with lots of crazy weather here in the U.S.?
In northern and eastern Texas, the heat and humidity creep up to triple digits during the end and beginning of each school year. There are tropical storms that come from hurricanes in the gulf, there are well-established tornado seasons, and once every few years, everything ices over even though no one in that area owns “really cold weather” clothing or gear for their vehicles.
In most places, regardless of the many weeks and months of more extreme weather, you will have three to six weeks of optimal outdoor learning time.
That’s not a lot.
But we need to learn to utilize that time effectively so that we can incorporate more nature into our classrooms and teaching.
Here are a few ideas we’ve found that can work for a variety of groups and in some cases extend the amount of time you can use your outdoor spaces.
Gardens and Greenhouses
This is one of the easiest ways to add nature to your classroom and teaching. Gardens can be created in a large variety of situations - even inner-city classrooms and schools with little to no outdoor spaces or time with conducive weather.
Hydroponic gardens can be created anywhere, as can container gardens. Specialized lamps can be built inexpensively, and plastic sheeting can be used even in a classroom corner to create a warmer, “greenhouse” effect.
Wall gardens are also a popular choice - you can build a small “wall” with shelving that is portable and can be placed in one area of your classroom. Small containers with a variety of plants can be added for students to care for.
There are lots of benefits to doing this. Not only will students be more exposed to nature and be able to incorporate their learning into everyday situations, but the carbon dioxide intake and oxygen output of the added foliage can literally clean classroom air.
You can even grow food if your students are food-deprived, giving them the opportunity to grow their own fruits and vegetables.
Raised gardens, outdoor container gardens, and outdoor greenhouses are also wonderful for students, and can often withstand much more extreme weather that humans can. Check with local master gardeners in your area who provide education and assistance with what grows well where you live and can help you create these learning spaces.
Another great thing about gardens and greenhouses is that more than one grade level or school can partner together to make, create, and maintain these learning spaces. High school and jr. high shop classes can help with building these spaces. Horticulture classes from secondary schools may be helpful in teaching younger students how to care for particular plants.
And don’t limit the involvement to students. Parents, grandparents, and community members are often more than willing to pitch in. Places like Lowe’s and Home Depot often partner with schools and other nonprofits and may be in a position to provide lumber, soil, plants, or pots. You never know until you ask.
Nature walks are a wonderful way to take a break from being indoors while also providing learning opportunities. Provide small notebooks and have students carry something to write or draw with as you go. Take the same route each week all year, and have students date each page and draw or write about what things look like from week to week.
This is a simple but excellent way to incorporate nature into learning at any level. If you teach English, Language Arts, or any other language, the writing activity is excellent for students to practice a variety of learned skills.
If you teach math, measurements can be taken, real-life problems can be posed and solved, and any number of math concepts can be hashed out.
Science, obviously, is well suited to students learning from these sorts of walks. Whether you’re testing the pH of the soil, documenting the local plants and animals you observe, or simply observe patterns of weather and its effects on nature, you’ve got lots of material in a nature walk.
Even if you teach social studies, you can talk about how environmental changes have affected things like historical events. Observing your own environment can lead to discussing battle plans or economic advantages and disadvantages in certain geographic areas. You can discuss good citizenship, taking care of the natural spaces around you, and how to survive in times of war or hardship.
If you are an elementary teacher, about 90% of what you teach can be incorporated in nature. There are so many excellent opportunities there.
Other Examples of Using Natural Spaces
We love the idea of using live-action role-playing for teaching pretty much everything. You can build sets or rely on your students’ imaginations to create any setting possible, and being outdoors often gives you just the space you need to do that.
Another issue a lot of educators have with moving their classes to outside areas is that there isn’t enough seating or seating conducive to learning.
The best recommendation for this is to plan ahead.
Like gardens and greenhouses, community members, students and teachers from other schools, and family members may be willing to pitch in to provide seating for an outdoor classroom. Weather-resistant seating and tables that students can sit and learn at would be useful for many grade-levels, so involve the whole school in your plans.
Talk to your parent-teacher organization, and ask around for businesses who’d like to be publicly thanked for making donations.
Sometimes just adding a durable, weather-resistant canopy to spaces that already exist can be very useful and make outdoor spaces more accessible during slightly more extreme weather.
One thing that could be beneficial to creating outdoor learning spaces is a portable building on the property where seating, manipulatives, writing utensils, and notebooks could be held and shared.
When all else fails, ask students to carry their chairs or desks outside. Invite them to bring a picnic blanket or towel from home once a week for outdoor learning (and keep a few stored in the classroom that can be laundered and reused by students who don’t have one or forget theirs).
While it’s true we may never have running tracks on our roofs, trees growing in the middle of our classrooms, or snow skiing as part of the P.E. curriculum, there are a lot of ways we can extend our outdoor spaces for more learning opportunities.
And that’s the kind of reformation we need.