The Outdoor Classroom

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In this blog, I wanted to explain some of our experiences by focusing first on the why of an outdoor classroom before progressing to the how and what.

Hopefully, by the end of this article you’ll feel informed enough to start an outdoor classroom program if you’ve been considering it before. If by chance you are already involved in a successful outdoor classroom we’d love to get your input to help us improve our own “Sprouts Club after-school eco & garden program.”

Technology Today & the Solutions Nature Provides

My 5th-grade daughter recently brought home a flyer from her elementary school which called for a new “Bring Your Own Technology” to school initiative.

I’m sure that whoever it was that came up with the idea had the best of intentions to educate the youth of our community in the latest cellphone and tablet doodad technology. I however, found it both hilarious and depressing to realize how out of touch our society is becoming.

I was tempted to send my daughter to school with a “construction kit” or “chemistry set” instead of an IPad. After all, aren’t these also forms of “technology?” But I think my point would have been lost on the administrators running the program.


What are these children doing in the garden?

Don’t get me wrong. I have nothing against technology. In fact, I am a software engineer by trade and I use my progamming skills to support neuroscience research and create the Garden Game.

Sometimes however, instead of empowering us, I find that the technology we use is increasingly isolating us from the world around us. At the same time it is subtly dehumanizing us on many different levels.

I could go on in length about the troubles of modern society, but my point is more about the fact that by elementary school age our children are already being disconnected from nature.

In the book, Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children From Nature-Deficit Disorder, Richard Louv examines how our kids are suffering increased obesity, depression, and other medical conditions such as “ADHD” because of their lack of contact with the natural world. He makes the argument that the more children can spend time outdoors, the more they wil thrive.

Passion is lifted from the earth itself by the muddy hands of the young; it travels along grass-stained sleeves to the heart. If we are going to save environmentalism and the environment, we must also save an endangered indicator species: the child in nature.Robert Louv
What we’ve found from our own experiences running an after-school gardening program at the local elementary school is that growing a garden is one of the best ways to get children back in contact with one of the most fundamental parts of who we are; the food that we eat.

The Outdoor Classroom

An outdoor classroom, either implemented in a homeschool setting or as part of a local school, provides a diverse toolbox for creating wonderful lessons in history, science, math, and art that are intuitive, practical and challenging.

Although you can run an outdoor classroom without a garden and simply explore the bounty of nature around you, we’ve found that a garden as the centerpiece of an outdoor classroom provides a structure that helps naturally organize lessons and provides common goals for lessons in team-bulding and shared responsibilities.

Our Personal Experience

We’ve been involved in the Sprouts club at our Rolling Ridge Elementary school for the last 2 1/2 years. It started out when we were touring the school and realized there was a wonderful interior courtyard space (around 50′ x 75′) that was being virtually unused by the students and teachers.

Enthusiastic about the possibilities of this space and energized by what we had learned so far about sustainable agriculture, my wife Nicole managed to write a successful proposal with one of the teachers for a Whole Foods Grant, that provided $2000 and public visibility into our efforts.


In our zeal to get something established, we quickly signed up over 70 K-5th grade students to a weekly after-school program to establish some raised beds, learn about compost, and start to grow some fruits and vegetables.

I won’t go into details about the organizational aspects of setting up an outdoor classroom in an American elementary school (which could fill up a whole blog by itself), but suffice it to say we were getting a lot of kids coming to our program who had never gardened before and many who didn’t realize the connections between the food they ate and the vegetables we chose to grow (for example, the connection between french fries and a potato).


Engage Children’s Senses

What we realized early on from observing the kids do various tasks in the garden as well as our own parenting experiences with our older (4) four children in our own garden is that the most important step in the outdoor classroom is to awaken the kids’ senses. Senses that have been dulled by video games and cell phones.

Seeing the expression on the students when they find their first earthworm or ladybug in the garden is one of the most satisfying experiences I’ve ever had.

Touching the soil and going through those first steps of slowly and methodically planting seeds helps the kids to focus. It amazes observers when a child who is diagnosed with “ADD” orn”ADHD” manages to carefully and considerately take care of each seed as they plant it in the ground.

It is especially important to ask the children to observe the plants and insects, prompting them to slow down and notice details about the environment around them. The patterns and rhythms of nature.


Sprouting the seeds and learning that these tiny objects unfold and grow into plants that will gradually mature until they produce a harvest is another invaluable lesson.

Of course, children love the harvest the best (as do I) because of the treasure hunt aspect of it. It requires a lot of concentration to find all the small pea pods and cherry tomatoes that might still be nestling amongst the plants.


Aside from the sensory activities associated with the cycle of growing, there are many practical tasks that need to be organized and assigned in order to care for the garden.

Favored chores like watering and taking scraps to the compost bin (where they watch the worms feast) can be rotated with ones that are less exciting to the kids (setting up trellises to support vining crops, pulling weeds, preparing the beds with compost and mulch).

Planning Out The Garden

The first step in setting up an outdoor classroom involves determining the structures (garden beds, outdoor seating, toolsheds, compost bins) and access (footpaths, garden bed aisles) that you’ll need.

Make sure to account for the children’s frame and height when planning the size of the garden beds. Consider that they must be able to reach the bed without stepping into it and compacting the soil.

Raised beds are preferred so that the beds are more at the height of the students. Also they provided a defined line as to where the plants grow and the footpath is.

It’s useful to make sure that all of your garden tools are sized for children’s hands so they get involved in all aspects of the gardening.


SEED in South Africa has one of the largest organized network of outdoor classrooms in the world and has plenty of examples and inspiration for creating larger outdoor classrooms for schools.

I would recommend having a seating area set-up even for a homeschool outdoor classroom since it provides a consistent staging area for spring-boarding into garden tasks or your outdoor classroom curriculum.

Below I’ve included a short list of possible outdoor classroom lesson plans for different subjects:

Art


Although nature and life itself are the highest form of art, integrating art into the outdoor classroom can help to add form to the functional side of your garden.

Some nice craft projects we’ve incorporated into Sprouts include using Deckle and Molds to make handmade paper from scrap paper.

Another is setting up homemade signs for each raised bed made from wooden boards that would otherwise be discarded.

Math


It’s very easy to incorporate practical geometry, multiplication, division, and measurement lessons into the outdoor classroom.

It can start with something as simple as calculating how many seeds will fit in a seed flat with a certain spacing.

Take measurements to space your larger transplants (shrubs, plants like tomatoes and melons that require more spacing). This is another math task kids will enjoy.

This can translate to three dimensions as well, with conversions of volume (eg., how many cubic yards of soil translate into 8 inches of soil coverage on all raised beds in the garden).

Finally you can do things like using a rain gauge to measure the amount of rainfall in the garden, as this school teacher has done for her first grade class in the picure above.

Science

Since Biology is the science of life, it makes sense that observing natural life forms in their habitat is the perfect vehicle for delivering practical science lessons.

Seeing the lifecycle of animals like frogs (in ponds), butterflies (monarch waystations), or plants (from seed to harvest, all the way to seed again) helps children to understand how interconnected all life on the planet is.

Physics and chemistry lessons are easily applied in an outdoor classroom as well.

Simple physics demonstrations include observing water flow (gravity, coriolis effect), testing simple machines (wheelbarrows), and observing change of state of water (ice/frost, condensation, evaporation).

Practical earth science experiments can include observing the weathering of bare soil in the garden, This will teach children how important it is to preserve topsoil for agricultural use and the permaculture means to do this (covering with straw mulch, cover cropping, etc).

One of our favorite lessons is on the soil food web. Here we explain how intertwined the (6) six kingdoms in biology are in our bodies and in the soil. The kids learn how much of what is unseen by us underground is responsible for creating the plant life that we do see aboveground.

History

For me, history classes in the outdoor classroom provide some of the most interesting insights into the past. Much of human history and culture has been associated with agriculture (much downplayed by modern society), so growing crops that were historically important really provides hidden context into why certain things happened.

Go back to the “barren soil” weathering experiment and we explain what caused the “Dust Bowl” phenomenon in the early 20th century.

Growing cotton and tobacco in your outdoor classroom garden can make students and teachers realize how finicky and nutrient demanding they are. It will give you a real appreiation for the work of slave workers that planted the fields of Virginia.

It can also make you realize why early American settler’s pushed westward. They had mismanaged the use of their land by planting high-demmanding plants such as corn, tobacco and cotton and neglected to replenish their soil.

Growing different types of agriculturally important wheat varieties (einkorn, emmer, wheat) really opens up a whole aspect of history missing from most historical textbooks.

The default classroom, should be an outdoor one.

We can conclude with a hundred more reasons to design a children’s garden.  

Bill Mollison, the Father of Permaculture used to say, “The possibilities in a permaculture design are limited only by the imagination of the designer.”

Similarly, the possibilities for education outdoors is limited only by the imagination of the teacher.

But we leave it in your hands to build start one, small and simple as it may be… and just do it!

Please share any thoughts or comments in the forum below.

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