It started with a school garden at Maplewood Richmond Heights Middle School. The garden did so well that students built another garden. Then they added native plants, where seventh-grade students learned lessons in data collection as they counted pollinators. The students wanted more pollinators, so they added a beehive. The bees made honey, and the kids used their sweet surplus to learn about the economics of commodities, said science educator Scott McClintock, who helped build the MRH middle school science program.
But students didn’t stop there.
Next came an aquaponics lab in the basement, said McClintock, “so we had this giant tub that we were growing talapia in.”
The nitrates from the fish waste got recycled back into the garden.
All this took place at a public middle school near St. Louis that previously struggled academically. MRH Middle School has the same budget constraints that many school districts face, but they took their limited budget and directed funds toward outdoor learning. It’s an investment that pays off in the form of physically, mentally and socially healthier students. McClintock and other teachers saw students become more kind to each other outside.
Outdoor classrooms help children develop properly because they provide small risks that help kids gain confidence and good judgment, according to Sharon Danks, CEO of Green Schoolyards America. Even in urban school districts, teachers can create multidisciplinary outdoor classrooms.
“Mental health and social and emotional well-being are two key areas that we believe children benefit from in a green schoolyard,” said Danks.
Teachers can also look to city and school parks as a daily resource, according to Jean Turney, an education coordinator for St. Louis-based nonprofit Forest Park Forever. Turney, a former elementary school teacher, now trains other teachers in how to use parks as a classroom.
“It’s not a field trip, but it’s more of experience,” she said. The park can become a science lab, art studio or gymnasium.
Science teachers are usually the most interested in outdoor classrooms, but math and language arts lessons can be enhanced by using outdoor spaces, said Turney. Part of it is letting go of structured lessons, to let students set their own course, “trusting that kids really do figure it out.”
GROWING A PROGRAM
When Maplewood-Richmond Heights was redesigned to include a garden in its space, McClintock wanted to take gardening a step further by keeping a growing list of pollinator counts so students could track those populations over the years. And the garden went beyond just counting insects and harvesting plants — his students also had an entire unit on soil food webs and microorganisms.
These kinds of projects and activities require funding, so McClintock found partners from the community to cover the bills. Missouri’s Department of Conservation provided free teacher training that included conservation curriculum. Participating teachers also received funds for trips and gear.
“They offered some amazing opportunities for teachers in terms of curriculum they designed for teaching outdoors,” said McClintock.
But that wasn’t the only place he found help. Even though he had no funding for trips, he found organizations that would help cover transportation. And when he couldn’t secure funding for a bus, he tried to bring nature to his students. At a previous school in downtown St. Louis, McClintock used a supply grant to purchase a backyard pond kit. He built the pond in the classroom and filled it with fish and crayfish he bought from the bait store.
“That was on the fourth floor of a building downtown,” he said. “While I couldn’t take my kids out, I ended up bringing nature in and that was awesome and that lasted for years.”
Those fourth-graders he taught in downtown St. Louis are now high school seniors, three of whom e-mailed him recently and told him that they were inspired to go into science because of their time in his classroom.
“The work we did with them as fourth-graders had that impact,” McClintock said.
Children have powerful tools in the form of their imagination. Even if students are just sitting in a soccer field, they can use their imagination to transform it into another space, said Janet Staal, an environmental education consultant at Blandford Nature Center in Grand Rapids, Michigan.
“We’ll just pretend we’re kestrels and we have to survive by getting our food differently than humans,” said Staal, who works with teachers in Grand Rapids Public Schools. One of those schools is based out of Blandford Nature Center and has most lessons in outdoor spaces. But for other city schools, Staal serves as a liaison to give hesitant teachers a starting point to outdoor learning. It doesn’t have to be an additional burden for teachers, according to Staal. Just start with a simple question: “What are you currently doing this week in your plan and what could you potentially do outdoors?”
Some other starter tips:
*If reading aloud in class, take the book outside.
*Adopt a tree on your school grounds.
*Do a study of one square yard of grass. Have your students count different plants and insects in that space.
*Ask groundskeepers to leave a patch of grass uncut. Track what grows there.
Danielle Hughes, a science teacher at Dearborn STEM Academy in Boston, managed to get science lessons out of taking her students around the neighborhood to identify rocks, or even to the grocery store, where they offered a free nutrition class. And Hughes’ school partnered with the nearby Harbor Islands to take students out for a three-day expedition where they learned about the geologic processes that formed the island. With only a short amount of repeated exposure, students quickly grew comfortable with the outdoors. On the Harbor Islands trip, some students first complained, “then by the third day they don’t want to leave,” said Hughes.
MAKE IT ROUTINE
Outdoor learning does take commitment and should become part of the daily routine.
“If an activity can be done outside, why not?” said Hughes.
Passionate teachers like Hughes are important, but part of the work of Green Schoolyards is to change the institutional requirements so outdoor learning is the norm.
“What we have in the form of our school grounds is public land that is our most used public parks and we haven’t treated them that way,” said Danks.
Greening asphalt schoolyards can help with stormwater infiltration and climate change, so those initiatives should qualify for funds used in climate mitigation.
“A green schoolyard is an ecosystem of opportunities,” said Danks.
These places can be resources to the community after school hours as well, she added. But city planners often leave these spaces out off their maps.
Green Schoolyards provides a free guides with more than 150 examples of what teachers can do on their own playgrounds, no matter the size.
“It is something you can change incrementally over time and make better and it’s something that kids can experience every day, right outside the door, if you do it,” said Danks.
Rather than being disempowered about large-scale environmental problems, said Danks, this is something where students can look out at their asphalt schoolyard and ask: How can you make this better?
“That small-scale positive interaction can give them confidence to do bigger things when their capabilities grow,” she added. “We’re looking to empower children to be stewards of their place, of their community.”