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Outside the Classroom, Adventure Awaits

Originally appears in the Summer 2014 issue

FOUR YEARS AGO, we took a group of students outside the classroom and presented them with a project: to study a single square foot of garden space. What can one small outdoor space teach a group of elementary students? Through exploring and journaling about their space, our students became fascinated with their local environment. They learned that plants and animals are in constant interaction with each other, cooperating and competing to survive. They came to the realization that a very intricate balance exists between living and non-living organisms. Our students began to think of themselves as scientists, and as teachers we realized teaching outside a traditional classroom
can have enormous benefits for elementary students.

What began our own investigation into outdoor education was a formerly unused space between two wings of a fairly old school building. The space met educational objectives and allowed us to reinforce curriculum standards for reading, language arts, mathematics, and science, while simultaneously, teaching life skills such as data collection, cooperative group work, and collaboration. We have also tackled science topics like ecosystems, species interactions, energy, and dynamics. It is truly amazing what you can learn in your own backyard. Below, we will discuss ideas and improvements we have applied to our own outdoor space, explanations of how particular features compliment and extend the curriculum, simple suggestions for managing learning in a novel environment as well as suggested student assessment strategies. We hope that by sharing our experiences of our initial foray into using the schoolyard to teach, we will inspire you to embrace the outdoor classroom with your own students.

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Cindi Smith-Walters is a professor of biology at Middle Tennessee State University and co-directs the MTSU Center for Environmental Studies. Christa Campbell is a 4th/5th Math and Science Laboratory Instructor at the McFadden School of Excellence in Murfreesboro, Tennessee.