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Finding Inspiration for Outdoor Learning

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Originally appears in the Fall 2017 issue

Laura Grimm has two doors in her classroom. Very conveniently, one of them opens directly to the schoolyard!
The other door opens into Laura’s indoor classroom. She is the Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts and Math (STEAM) teacher (K-8) for a small, rural Ohio school district. Every day she teaches classes while also serving as a STEAM resource for teachers in her building.
Laura represents all teachers who care deeply about helping children to understand the natural world. Her accomplishments help us to recognize opportunities in our own situations.

Laura’s commitment to outdoor learning began over twenty years ago with one of those classrooms with two doors. She regularly used one door to take her class outside for activities that enriched the curriculum and made abstract concepts more concrete in all areas of the curriculum — not only science. But even if you have only one door in your classroom, you can still replicate many of Laura’s activities and projects.

To use the outdoors as a teaching tool, Laura developed an outdoor classroom on her school site. She tracked down potential donations in the community and enlisted the help of parent and staff volunteers to create a flexible outdoor learning site with diverse plantings, animal feeding stations and a circular outdoor meeting area. She used this outdoor classroom, as well as nearly all areas of the school grounds, as her nature-based audio-visual tools. Several of the activity ideas that she utilized at her school were included in the book Schoolyard-Enhanced Learning, and are shared below.

Although Laura works in a rural setting, it’s possible to develop outdoor learning areas anywhere. I have worked with schools in a variety of locales — urban, suburban and rural. Even schools in downtown Boston, with green space barely equal to the size of a few parking spaces, have created some diverse plantings and meeting areas that frame outdoor learning. Take a walk around your school grounds. Look for areas that could be left unmowed to create biodiversity, or have natural edge effects where one habitat meets another.

As years passed and district needs shifted, Laura’s building was closed and she was assigned a new grade level at another school in a neighboring town. Although it was difficult to walk away from her thoughtfully created outdoor classroom, a new opportunity appeared. The district was building a new K-8 building and needed teacher volunteers to provide input.

Laura recognized the opportunity during the design phase of the project to provide advocacy for both outdoor learning and green building initiatives. As a member of the planning committee she championed the concept that the school grounds be considered as a learning space. Since STEAM initiatives were being emphasized in the district, Laura wanted to utilize the outdoors as a part of her instruction. As a result, the STEAM classroom has — you guessed it — two doors! One of those doors opens to an inviting outdoor classroom space.

Although working on a design committee for a new school is a powerful opportunity to promote outdoor learning, there are other ways to encourage schoolyard learning. For example, every staff has at least a few teachers who see the value of using the outdoors for instruction. Unfortunately, many of those folks work in isolation and often are not even aware of other staff who would be eager to share ideas and collaborate on projects. Try bringing these folks together occasionally to share ideas, resources and possible joint projects.

Currently, Laura is seeing her fundraising and planning efforts evolve as a state-of-the-art greenhouse is constructed adjacent to the building. The greenhouse would never have happened if Laura had not advocated and personally raised funds in the community for the project.

Even if a greenhouse isn’t a fit for your school, there are still many ways to encourage outdoor learning. Many parents bring a variety of talents that can be channeled into creating outdoor learning sites. As a champion for outdoor instruction you can help to merge teacher ideas and parent talent. Remember also that including news about outdoor learning in classroom and school newsletters, as well as websites, is powerful advocacy that any of us can do.

Laura did all of this fundraising and advocating while still teaching and serving as a resource to her colleagues. She has taught in the district’s May resident outdoor education program for more than a decade. For many years her classes were not involved, so the task of preparing a week’s worth of lesson plans was added to the work mix.

Continuing professional growth is essential for any educator. But for teachers passionate about outdoor learning, it’s especially important to seek out opportunities to meet with like-minded folks who can provide fresh ideas and essential optimism. Seek out the websites of state or provincial environmental education associations for lists of workshops and meetings near you. On a national scale, the North American Association for Environmental Education (NAAEE) and Canada’s Evergreen are great clearinghouses of professional development resources.

Laura found several grants to further her continued growth as a teacher. She was chosen for two highly selective programs: The Honeywell Green Boot Camp (2014) and The Honeywell Space Academy for Educators (2012). Both programs have provided her students with valuable materials and unique learning opportunities. The Honeywell Corporation created this scholarship program in partnership with the U.S. Space and Rocket Center to provide middle school
science and math teachers from around the world with a unique opportunity to learn about space exploration at a week-long astronaut training program in Huntsville, Alabama.

Each year the Environmental Education Council of Ohio (EECO) presents an award to a person selected from PK-12 teachers, school administrators, curriculum specialists or higher education faculty for outstanding contributions to environmental education in Ohio. The award is not given for one-time projects or accomplishments. Instead, it celebrates a person who has consistently focused on helping students gain a better understanding of the environment. This year’s winner was Laura Grimm.

Although Laura personifies the words “busy” and “involved,” her primary focus is always on bringing complex concepts into clearer focus for her students. She is a strong advocate of using the schoolyard as an instructional tool. On the following pages are a few activities that Laura uses to take students through that second door into the outdoor classroom. Although designed for 5th grade students, they could be adapted for a variety of grade levels. Hopefully some of these activities will fit into your curriculum too!

Herb Broda is an emeritus professor of education at Ashland University, in Ashland, Ohio, and the author of two books about the schoolyard as a teaching tool. Schoolyard-Enhanced Learning (2007) and Moving the Classroom Outdoors (2011) are both available from Stenhouse Publishers, Portland Maine. Herb’s idea of a perfect day is sharing nature with his family. Learn more about his work at: www.movingtheclassroomoutdoors.com