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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!

Arizon-Wha?!

ARIZON-WHA?! 

We’re starting a new column! Stay tuned for funky new mystery species with every newsletter.

Can you identify this ferocious-looking critter? 

Clue: They are found underground around Arizona in early September. 

Take a guess, then scroll to the bottom of this newsletter for the answer! (or however you want to do it)

Photo by Jessie Rack

Answer to this issue’s ARIZON-WHA?! Photo challenge:

If you guessed beetle grub, congratulations! Since it’s a white grub, we can identify this big chunk as belonging to the scarab beetle family, Scarabaeidae. Due to its size and the location where it was found, it’s pretty likely that this one is a baby Western Hercules Beetle, Dynastes grantii. Larvae of this species can spend 2-3 years as a crazy-looking underground monster like our friend up above, but once they’ve developed into adults they only live for 2-4 months. As grubs, they eat decaying plant material (that makes them decomposers, y’all!) but as adults they feed on tree sap by making a small wound in the tree (this doesn’t hurt the tree). I’ll give you a dollar if you eat it. 

Have you seen weird nature stuff around Arizona? Submit your photos to membership@arizonaee.org for the chance to have them published in a future edition of ARIZON-WHA?!

 

Jessie Rack is a Board Member at AAEE. She received her Ph.D. in Ecology and Evolutionary Biology from the University of Connecticut in the spring of 2016. She is currently the Program Coordinator of the Supporting Environmental Education and Communities (SEEC) Program, an offshoot of the Community and School Garden Program at the University of Arizona.

Urban School Gardens: A Nature Niche

by Jessie Rack

The world’s intrinsic beauty and complexity is a never-ending source of inspiration for educators. And we’ve all seen the results of being outside on our students, no matter what age — immersion in nature invites focus, observation, and simple noticing. Students with behavior or attention issues are sometimes stabilized in an outdoor environment. The smallest insect or rock becomes a fascination, and questions bloom without effort. 

As environmental educators, we don’t need to be told about the benefits of taking our students outside. In the last two decades, there has been a dramatic increase in the number of studies on outdoor education, with authors citing results like better grades, higher test scores, and improvements in focusing attention and regulating behavior. But for those of us who, like more than 80% of the US population live in urban areas, helping our students reap the benefits of the outdoors is sometimes more complicated than simply taking them outside of the school. So how do we give urban children the experience and benefits of playing and learning outside? One way to do it is through school gardens. 

This approach works because school gardens occupy something of an in-between space: they are not quite the structured, rule-bound, indoor world of the classroom, and yet also not the unstructured freedom of the open desert, or the forest, or even the playground. And yet they encompass aspects of all of those spaces. Gardens are a place in which collaboration and communication happen naturally, in which rules are still followed, but in which students can learn from experience and from others, and can literally get their hands dirty, while their teachers can still achieve their curricular objectives and meet state and national standards.

There has also been a lot of research about the benefits of school gardens specifically – it’s been something of a hot topic for the past couple of decades. Research is ongoing, but it seems that school gardens can affect students in a variety of ways. These range from the most obvious areas of healthy eating, nutrition, and science to more subtle impacts such as positive social and emotional skills, group collaboration, and even increased environmental stewardship. 

With all of this in mind, stay tuned for a series of AAEE newsletter articles about school gardens. In future editions, I will be sharing some tips for starting and maintaining school gardens, and for using these gardens to fill the nature niche that many urban schools lack. My position, with the University of Arizona’s Community and School Garden Program, is unique; I run the Supporting Environmental Education and Communities Program, in which I work directly with students at Title I schools, providing weekly environmental education lessons to students at these low-resource urban schools in Tucson. I also work with my colleagues to install school gardens at schools around Tucson and to help train teachers to take care of the gardens and to use gardens in their curricula, using the gardens and outdoor spaces at the schools as living laboratories to get students outside and immersed in nature. No matter the age group or ability level, school gardens are an effective tool for engaging students, for improving focus and achievement, and for getting kids excited about their environment. And, of course, for getting a little dirty.

 

Jessie is a Board Member at AAEE. She received her Ph.D. in Ecology and Evolutionary Biology from the University of Connecticut in the spring of 2016. She is currently the Program Coordinator of the Supporting Environmental Education and Communities (SEEC) Program, an offshoot of the Community and School Garden Program at the University of Arizona.

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.