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Outdoor Classrooms as Plan A for Reopening Schools

Outdoor Classrooms as Plan A for Reopening Schools

As states, districts, principals, teachers, and parents are trying to decide if, and when, students should return to school, here is something to consider: What if Outdoor Classrooms were Plan A for reopening schools?

Using the outdoors can provide a cost effective way to assist with social distancing and increase school capacity. Having students utilize outdoor classrooms for at least part of the day has many benefits. It provides a place for social learning and collaboration; fresh air; hands-on learning opportunities; and therapeutic quiet, reflective spaces. The air quality is generally better outside than inside and some studies have shown that “environmental conditions, such as wind and sunlight, may reduce the amount of virus present on a surface and the length of time the virus can stay viable.”(Green Schoolyards)

Opening schools by utilizing the outdoors can also be a way to address the issues of equity; academic and social learning; and mental, physical, and emotional health.

Green Schoolyards, in collaboration with the Lawrence Hall of Science, Ten Strands, and San Mateo County Office of Education’s Environmental Literacy and Sustainability Initiative, are working on a plan to assist schools with reopening by using the outdoors as a way to provide a safer, more engaging, Plan A.

Green Schoolyards is developing resources to assist schools with the logistics of outdoor classrooms. They have downloadable resources such free schoolyard activity guides including:

The Green Schoolyards website also includes case studies of model programs and a section with multiple news articles related to outdoor learning.

Guides for national and state guidance and policies for COVID-19 planning considerations for reopening schools can be found at https://www.greenschoolyards.org/covid-19-guidance It includes guidance from the American Academy of Pediatrics, Center for Disease Control and Prevention; National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine; American Camp Association; North American Association for Environmental Education (NAAEE); California Department of Education; California Department of Public Health; and the Florida Department of Education.

 

Okay, so we know that getting kids outdoors can be a good thing, but how should schools design their landscape to encourage outdoor learning? Green Schoolyards has launched a new, pro bono landscape design assistance program that partners schools with volunteer designers to assist with the process.

 

 

Green Schoolyards also has downloadable tools and resources including Outdoor Infrastructure Planning Overview, Outdoor Classroom Configuration Options, and Outdoor Infrastructure Cost Estimate Tool. https://www.greenschoolyards.org/outdoor-infrastructure

Do you want to get involved with helping to shape the national initiative of Outdoor Classrooms? Green Schoolyards has convened working groups to do just that. The working groups will collaborate to write chapters of what will be a comprehensive, online resource book that will be available as a free download once it is completed.

They welcome teachers, administrators, parents, engineers, companies, non-profit organizations, informal educators, and others to join the initiative by participating in one or more of the working groups. The working groups include the following:

  1. Plans to ensure equity
  2. Outdoor classroom infrastructure
  3. Park/school collaboration
  4. Outdoor learning & instructional models
  5. Staffing & formal/nonformal partnerships
  6. School program integration (with PE, recess, before/after care)
  7. Community engagement
  8. Health & safety considerations
  9. Local & state policy shifts
  10. Funding & economic models
  11. Community of practice for Early Adopters

Get involved and help shape the Outdoor Classroom initiative! More information about the working groups can be found at: https://www.greenschoolyards.org/working-groups

Let’s work together to create healthy learning environments!

Licensing Outdoor Preschool?

By Diona Williams, M.Ed. ECSE

The state of Washington is the first pilot in the United States that aims to finally license outdoor, nature-based, and forest preschools. This is in reference to schools that spend the majority of their days outside the four walls, exploring natural spaces, regardless of the weather. You can see all the outdoor, nature, and forest-based schools in the United States on the Natural Start Alliance‘s website; they are the Early Childhood Environmental Education program of our partner organizations, NAAEE.


Currently in the United States, there are no licensing systems in place for outdoor preschools as much of the licensing process is build around the school’s physical building. Washington is leading the way in confronting this issue, because without licensing, outdoor preschools face huge barriers for making their program accessible to everyone. Just like a regular preschool licensing system, Washington’s licensing pilot program has a set of standards that the schools will all have to meet. Why might this Washington experiment be important to us down here in Arizona?

Here’s an example from my life: As an owner/lead educator of a nature preschool in Arizona, this pilot program is ground breaking for our state. Our licensing systems have many rules that simply don’t align with foundational practices in outdoor and garden-based learning. Imagine you are a teacher in the state of Arizona. You start a school garden and want to grow tomatoes because they do so well in the sun here. Unfortunately, in our current system, this plant is categorized as poisonous so licensed facilities cannot have them in a children’s garden. This happened to me, and this is the reality of licensed programs throughout the state of Arizona. Many preschool teachers express frustration at the limited vegetation their programs can grow in their school gardens or have in the green spaces their program goes to.

So, how does the state of Arizona move forward? Of course, my initial thought it’s time to start our own pilot program. I think this starts with reviewing and surveying the specific gardening and outdoor time limitations for licensed programs such as child care centers, in-home providers, Head Starts, and public schools currently experience. After we review the findings, we’ll be able to write our own set of standards that makes sense for our schools and our climate. Then, we can move towards policy discussions by educating stakeholders on the importance of spending time in nature and gardening and how the current rules limit licensed facilities from providing the outdoor time & gardening opportunities that children deserve.

If you’re interested in joining our Early Childhood Environmental Education working group that is beginning to explore the options of increasing nature-based and outdoor early learning in Arizona, let us know!

Contact Diona Williams at outbacklearning2019@gmail.com for more information.

AAEE Celebrates Earth Day!

The year is 1970. Over 500,000 copies of Rachel Carson’s book Silent Spring have been sold in over 24 countries, civic engagement is on the rise, and awareness of the connection between environmental and human health has entered dinner table conversations in homes across America. Gaylord Nelson, a senator from Wisconsin, announces a plan for a “national teach-in on the environment,” and the idea for Earth Day is born. April 22, 1970, and over 20 million Americans take to the parks, auditoriums, and town halls to join the national conversation about how to address the growing concerns. Earth Day unified voters from all parties and walks of life, legislators came together and signed the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency into law, and the nation united for the health of the planet and generations to come.

Forty-eight years later, in honor of these national commitments and in pursuit of our organization’s vision, AAEE joined millions across the globe coming together to celebrate the Earth and engage in these same conversations, collaborating with communities to reconnect with and protect our natural resources. For Earth Day, the AAEE co-sponsored the Kid’s Earth Day Celebration in the heart of downtown of Prescott, Arizona. With a focus on Nelson’s original “teach-in” concepts, the kid’s area was dedicated to learning through exploration & fun.

Over 280 children from the Tri-City Area surrounding Prescott attended the event with their families, indicating well over 200 seeds planted, faces painted with local critters, natural bird feeders made, nature objects explored, healthy snacks consumed, environmental scavenger hunts completed, and so much more! AAEE also gave away free nature-based kids’ books to any young Earth Day explorers stopping by our table. 

Like all of AAEE’s work, this event was made possible by collaboration with formal and non-formal environmental education organizations of Arizona and the efforts of dedicated volunteers. This year, we united with four other programs: Educational Expeditions, the Center for Nature and Place-based Early Childhood Education, Yavapai Cooperative Extension SNAP-Ed, and the Prescott Community Gardens, to collaboratively create an interdisciplinary and exciting space for kids. Environmental Education students from Prescott College designed and prepared many of the activities as well. Big thanks to those 15 student-volunteers that showed up armed with green bandanas, 60 paint brushes and gallons of paint, 1 guitar, 2 pirate costumes, 200 pine cones, pounds of peanut butter, a wild assortment of nature objects, and a whole lot of enthusiasm, collaboratively creating a day filled with enough Earth celebration to inspire us all year long. Nelson’s dream for a “national teach-in” with communities coming together united by environmental education lives on.