Where the Wild Things Are—Outside Your Classroom
By Martha Beach
The mid-winter sun is peeking from behind the clouds and a cold breeze is blowing across the open soccer field. A line of grade two students, dressed in puffy coats, colourful hats and mitts, and carrying clipboards, skip along behind their teacher. They are heading to the back corner of the schoolyard, where a carefully formed semi-circle of large, white, flat stones sits surrounded by a half-dozen young trees, leafless for the approaching winter months. The teacher stops, facing the rocks. Students take a seat on the stones and hold their clipboards on their laps. The teacher has come prepared with a sack of supplies for a science experiment, some discussion questions, and of course his own set of warm mitts, hat, and coat.
This outdoor classroom is less than two years old, and it is the simplest form of an outdoor learning space. Outdoor learning is a growing trend in Canada. It has been building momentum since the 1990’s and accelerated in the 2000’s. Taking the cue from countries like Sweden, Denmark, Germany, and the United Kingdom, schools across Canada are converting their traditional, barren, concrete school yards into planned outdoor learning areas with shaded groves, greenhouses, and educational gardens. These spaces boast a multitude of physical and mental benefits that touch on everything from mental acuity and improved social behaviour, to physical fitness and higher energy.
An outdoor classroom is an educational facility and study area made of natural elements. All subjects and curricula can be taught in every season and to any age group, though younger classes, kindergarten to grade four, are more apt to use the areas. While a study by TD Friends of the Environment found, that 80 per cent of Canadian parents have had a “green” conversation with their kids in the last year, children spend an average of almost eight hours a day in front of a screen. That number has jumped by more than one hour in the past two years. Pair that development with rising childhood obesity rates and the need to get outdoors is overwhelming.
Inside the four walls there is one teacher and 30 kids for six hours a day, five days a week, 10 months of the year. Teaching outdoors seems like an obvious next step, especially when kids learn best by doing. “Learning outside is a tangible opportunity,” says Cam Collyer, Program Director at Evergreen. “We’re all stimulated by nature; our body and mind are engaged. When the body comes alive with senses it stimulates your brain to learn and explore.” Collyer oversees the environmental organization’s work to create better outdoor spaces at schools across Canada. Over the past 20 years, 35,000 schools have envisioned their dream yards, and Evergreen has supplied the expertise to help them reach their goals.
“When you take kids outside, everyone is so energized,” says Carol Durnford, vice-principal at Monsignor Fee Otterson in Edmonton. “They go back into the school more invigorated and focused and ready to learn.” Physical movement increases blood flow to the brain. Furthermore, outdoor space allows for a deeper connection to education. “Outdoor learning is ongoing, versus a one-time field trip,” Durnford points out. Especially with science, it’s a real thing. “They can connect to the nature around them and it is a deeper learning experience.” Christine Merin, vice-principal at Mitchell Elementary in British Columbia, agrees. “It’s about living the experiences together. A teacher should attempt to creatively integrate the curriculum of math, science, or poetry into that experience.”
Part of creating a great outdoor space is about tailoring curriculum, and part is about landscape design. “It has to be built to handle the pummeling of children,” says Collyer. “It’s got to have good bones—those bones are trees.” In a typical asphalt or concrete play yard, there is what Collyer refers to as “lollipop trees”; they stand alone, far from each other. “Lollipop trees get loved to death,” Collyer says. Kids adore playing around them, near them, and on them. The ground surrounding the base becomes so compacted that rainwater is not able to reach the roots. The key is to have several groupings of trees, or “pockets of shade,” and to protect the roots and trunk with a cage until they are big enough to survive. From there, layering on other elements—gardens, weather stations, seating, tool sheds, green houses—will only improve the yard.
There are many layers that help a child play or learn. A natural environment contains a great balance of spaces to learn and play mixed with things they can alter, touch, and manipulate. “We aren’t interested in creating a whole forest, we’re interested in creating a balance,” Collyer says.
But getting outside also needs to balance with the rest of the school day. Going outdoors should be part of the natural flow of the school: “It’s not a field trip outside,” Collyer says. “It’s not either-or, outdoor or indoor, it’s the knitting of both.” At Monsignor Fee Otter, students have a strong indoor-outdoor connection. “We gather data outside, review and organize it indoors, go back out to collect samples or get a different view, then go back in to discuss,” says Durnford.
That outdoor connection to learning really starts with educators who want to take a lesson out to the field. But it’s not easy at first. It may require a bit of tweaking to the regular lesson plan in order to follow the curriculum. Having support and resources for educators is important. Different organizations across Canada offer resources and workshops to help teachers learn the tips and tricks of taking classes outdoors.
The more professional development that lends itself to this type of education, the more useful the outdoors will become. “It can be total chaos if you don’t set the stage,” says Christine Marin, vice-principal at Mitchell Elementary in Richmond, BC. “If you set the ground rules, once they are outside of those four walls they will be working cooperatively,” Merin says. An engaged student is less likely to bother and bully their peers, so outdoor classes can help alter social behaviour.
Outside, social relationships shift a little. Students tend to open up, share and learn more. “The single biggest impact of learning outside is the expression of care,” Collyer says. For starters, they learn about and care for the environment. “The kids are so respectful of their space,” says Marin. Her students at Mitchell Elementary had a lot of input on their flower and vegetable gardens. When kids have a chance to give input and take care of the space themselves, they have a much deeper connection, she says. “They definitely feel responsibility towards the environment,” Durnford agrees.
Students tend to also feel more responsibility to one another, finds Lisa Lockerbie, teacher at Sangster Elementary School’s Nature Kindergarten (or Nature K for short) in Colwood, B.C., now in its second pilot year. “They take on the role of being care-taker when we’re outside. They come together as a community,” she says. “If someone falls, they help them up. If someone is forgetting the rules, the others remind them,” Lockerbie says.
That altered social dynamic when learning outside is a huge part of outdoor learning, but not just for school children. Programs like Wendigo Lake Expeditions’ Project D.A.R.E. (Development through Adventure, Responsibility, and Education) in South River, Ontario, use the power of experiential outdoor education to enhance their therapy results. Now in its 40th year, D.A.R.E. is for at-risk youth who have exhausted all of the options in their community. “We are the last option in many cases,” says Jeremie Carreau, a member of the leadership team. “Parents are at their wits ends but they don’t want to give them up to the Children’s Aid Society.” Every part of the sometimes year-long program is intended to help them re-establish themselves. “We use the outdoors—expeditions, rope courses, hikes—to teach them life skills,” Carreau says. Being out in the forest for many months forces the inner city kids outside of their comfort zone. “It’s about them thriving in a new environment and being courageous and pushing themselves to succeed. We are very intentional in how we use the outdoors to help youth explore their base emotions and how to handle them in different ways,” says Carreau.
A strong base of studies, research and first-hand experiences of educators and students support the mountain of benefits, but an outdoor classroom doesn’t grow overnight. A great schoolyard is built up bit-by-bit, flowerbed-by-flowerbed, and a few hundred dollars at a time. “The number one thing our kids are learning is patience,” says Marin. She has a small fund but a big dream for the schoolyard at Mitchell Elementary. They have been working toward their goal for two years. Evergreen’s own outdoor children’s space at Brick Works has been in the works for three years, and they aren’t done yet. But starting small is the best way to do it. “There is a lot to be seen in the smallest patch of grass,” says Durnford.
In Canada, we may be playing catch-up to some European countries (Coombes Primary School in Britain has been teaching outdoor classes for 40 years to infants and small children), but we now recognize the importance of incorporating the natural world into our schools. Evergreen is just one organization, and Collyer is just one enthusiastic supporter, working towards better outdoor environments. “Schools have a huge role,” Collyer says. “But we all need to be part of getting kids physically active and learning well.”