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Sustaining Outdoor Classrooms

Originally appears in the Summer 2006 issue

Since the 1990s the state of Georgia has been a leader in the outdoor classroom movement. Yet a 2003 study by the Georgia Wildlife Federation found that 41 percent of the more than 1,000 schoolyard habitat projects in the state had been abandoned.1 Of these, over 80 percent had fallen into disuse by the end of their second year. Follow-up interviews by the Federation revealed that the main reasons projects had been abandoned were (in order of frequency cited) difficulty maintaining the site, inability or uncertainty among teachers about how to use the outdoor classroom in their lessons, inadequate funding, vandalism (especially at high schools), and loss of the site due to school expansion or relocation. On the other hand, successful schools who were able to sustain their outdoor classrooms over many years cited the following reasons for their project’s longevity: continued community support (volunteer labor, expertise, and donations), direct student involvement, funding, teacher training, and administrative support.

The abandonment of any outdoor classroom represents a considerable waste of money, human energy, and educational potential. Most outdoor classroom projects are undertaken with limited funding, mostly from small grants and donations that require a great deal of time on the part of teachers and volunteers to secure. In the outdoor classroom projects studied by the Federation, record-keeping was scarce, and it was not uncommon to find schools where staff members were building new outdoor classrooms, unaware of previous projects already on their campus. (“Is that what those raised beds full of weeds and broken benches in the courtyard were for?”) Instead of maintaining or developing an already-existing outdoor classroom, tremendous energy and resources were being used to start new projects. This reinvention of the wheel can drain financial resources and volunteer energy.

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Amanda Kail is a member of the executive planning committee of the Georgia Outdoor Classroom Council, a board member of the Environmental Education Alliance of Georgia, and the former Education Program Coordinator for Georgia Wildlife Federation. She now works as an educator for the Georgia Aquarium in Atlanta.