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The Field of Dreams (and Other Outdoor Classroom Myths)

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Originally appears in the Summer 2006 issue

Myth #1: If you build it, they will come.

Like the line from the old baseball movie Field of Dreams, many people assume that if outdoor classrooms are built, teachers will flock to them. But when volunteers from Frey Elementary in Acworth, Georgia, toured schools to get ideas for an outdoor education program, they noticed a disturbing pattern. Many of the facilities seemed neglected and abandoned. Trails were overgrown, gazebos dilapidated, and raised beds choked with weeds. Most importantly, students were nowhere in sight. Determined to find out if outdoor classrooms were wanted or needed before investing the time and energy to build them, they distributed an opinion survey to the faculty at Frey. The results were somewhat surprising.

Although several teachers expressed an interest in walking trails, there was not much enthusiasm for teaching alfresco. A few respondents indicated that activities such as hunting for tadpoles and journal-writing outdoors were part of their routine, but most teachers thought of the school grounds as a place for aimless walks and nature crafts — extra-curricular activities for which they had no time. Many expressed serious reservations about teaching outside, ranging from concerns about lack of relevance to worries about poison ivy, bees and yellow jackets, ticks, bears, rabid animals, and uncontrollable children. Almost all who answered the survey agreed that there was a need for better access to the school’s undeveloped nature area, which was isolated on the far side of a creek. The most popular requests were for bridges, trails, and learning stations. But teachers warned that they would need training, support, and teaching materials before they could make use of such facilities.

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Karyn Wood has worked with teachers, administrators, students, and volunteers at Frey Elementary School in Acworth, Georgia, to help create the school’s outdoor education program.