By: Ashley Whitehead, Littlewood Elementary School Teacher (Gainesville, Florida)
Imagine. Explore. Discover. Create. What better place to actively engage students in learning than the great outdoors! Children learn through their senses and our surrounding natural environment employs all of our senses, thus heightening the overall learning experience. The subtle swaying of trees causing a quiet rustling of leaves, the melodic sound of birds in song, the fleeting aroma of each passing season, the day’s temperature on the skin, and the echo of one’s own voice can all be experienced in an outdoor classroom. Best of all, it is free and dressed for every holiday. Just step out, over the threshold, to a natural wonderland and experience the values of learning in nature.
If the great outdoors is accessible to every teacher, then why are so few using it, in all its glory? The answers are, of course, complicated and depend on many variables. Teachers have expressed concerns related to climate, such as: “It’s too hot or too cold, too wet or too humid, too dirty, too buggy.” Or there are other issues, like “There is not enough time to cover all the standards or material in the curriculum” or “My kids are not well behaved and would not be able to focus.” Some teachers feel that it would call for extra work, or that they would not know what to teach. However, if you look at the outcomes of outdoor learning, they greatly outweigh the excuses not to do it.
I am a teacher at Littlewood Elementary School in Gainesville, Florida. My hope is to explore the ways in which we, as educators, engage with and make use of our outdoor spaces. I intend to literally and metaphorically take down the educational walls that surround our classrooms. Educators are expected to teach to the standards, but it is important for students to think creatively and be able to solve real world problems. The natural world is more concrete in their minds, and it is a place where their imaginations can run wild. The traditional classroom provides students with abstract problems in an imaginative world but these ideas can be vague and feel foreign to them, making it difficult to understand or connect. One way to solve this problem is through place-based education. Place-based education is not a curriculum to follow, but rather an outside of the box approach. It requires teachers to think differently, which in turn encourages students to do the same. It promotes a connection to the local – community, history, and environment.
One way to involve students with learning outdoors is to partner with the local community. In 2013, I was fortunate enough to partner with Annie Hermansen-Báez. She is the manager of InterfaceSouth, a science delivery center for the U.S. Forest Service’s Southern Research Station. She also leads the Kids in the Woods project. Together we started an afterschool Green Team for students at Littlewood. The purpose of the team is to make our school a more green and healthy learning environment. We currently have seventeen members, grades third through fifth. The students are the true leaders in implementing projects on campus; the teachers simply guide them through the process. One major project we completed was to create an outdoor classroom. In addition to working with Annie, we also worked with a local landscape architect, Elisabeth Manley (both are parents of Littlewood students). The Green Team chose the location by conducting site investigations. Next, the team designed an ideal layout for the space. With help and guidance from Ms. Manley, these designs were made into a final draft. We then applied for and won a grant through Project Learning Tree (PLT). Using the money from the grant, the students created a space that included benches, stepping-stones, bird feeders/baths, and a small pollinator garden.
Once the classroom was made we wanted to ensure that the space would get used. A survey was sent out for teachers to complete. This survey provided us with information on what teachers were teaching and what lessons they might like to teach outside. With that information in mind, backpacks were assembled to include life science lessons and accompanying materials needed to carry out the lesson. Interested teachers simply check out a backpack, take their class to the outdoor classroom, and teach without the need to gather any additional materials or resources.
To introduce this resource to the teachers, Annie and I led a workshop on how to use the lessons. We took the teachers to the outdoor classroom and had them go through several of the lessons. Over time many teachers have taken advantage of the backpack lessons. Jennifer Anhalt, a multi-age teacher, reported “My students walk through the outdoor classroom often but teaching in it allowed them to take the time to notice the rocks or colorful leaves.” Another teacher, Anya Santana, said “My kids enjoyed observing the flowers and bees in the pollinator garden.” Jackie LaRoche took her class out to measure and observe a square plot. She said, “I thought I would have needed to help more, but my students were completely capable of working independently. They loved the activity and didn’t want to leave!”
We are in our fourth year of the Green Team and are currently working on designing and creating a nature play area behind our school’s playground.
Place-Based Education in the Classroom
In addition to leading an after-school Green Team, our grade level also used place-based education with our primary grades (K-2). The projects provided an opportunity to connect with community members as well as leaders within the school system. Last spring the students put on a performance titled, It Starts with Me. The show was about the three Rs: Reduce, Reuse, and Recycle. To make this show more meaningful to the students, we partnered with several community members.
With place-based education in mind, I created lessons that were specifically designed to offer students an experience of learning that peaked their interests, appropriate to their personal development. It also afforded students an opportunity to learn in a way that was not constricting to their wisdom. The lessons embrace cultural and family beliefs while providing access to the outdoors.
The first project we participated in was with the Keep Alachua Beautiful Clean-Up. This was a way for students to give back to the community by picking up trash and planting shrubbery at our local Boys and Girls Club. With the trash collected, we created Trashformations. These art objects were created by students who turned ordinary garbage into something extraordinary using building skills and their imagination.
The following day, presenters from Waste Watchers taught the students about recycling in our community. Students learned that when you throw something in the recycling bin or garbage can, it continues on a long journey. The next day we took a trip to our local recycling plant to see this journey in action. During these activities, students documented the packaging left over from their school lunches. To conclude, we celebrated and sung our songs with meaning at the It Starts with Me performance.
Although these activities deal with complex global issues, they are presented to children in an enjoyable and fitting way. Children of this age think concretely and need to learn through their senses. These students feel an innate connection to the natural world and are often protective of it.
Like academics, children view the world in unique and varying ways. Not only do students need varied input to find success within the classroom, they require a variety of tools to handle real world situations outside of the classroom as well.
A Daily Dose
All kids have equal access to the outdoors, but for various reasons they are not utilizing this amazing resource to its full potential. To help students get their daily dose of fresh air, educators need to step in. As teachers, we need to plan lessons with our students in mind and not just the standards. If we do this, it will be easy to meet individual needs while building on the magic of childhood.
Nature Journaling is a great start to place-based education. It only takes about fifteen minutes and as you watch your students working in their journals, you can literally see the students at ease. I have yet to have any behavior issues while sitting outside journaling. During our weather study, we went out every day to observe and write about the weather. In their journals, several students took a poetic approach. One student wrote “Today it is windy, cool, and the sun is warm against my back.” Another student categorized her thoughts into how it makes her feel inside and how the weather feels.
Nature journaling ties in nicely to the constructivist approach as well as writing and science. Students are making their own discoveries without feeling the pressure of being right or wrong. I am not teaching them a formula to follow. They are learning penmanship and how to organize their thoughts all on their own. After we journal, the students are more focused and calmer.
Here are the key points that I personally have found helpful in incorporating place-based education within my school:
- Find a parent in the school that will support you and works within the community.
- Involve as many students and parents as possible to ask what changes they would like to see, what is already working, and how they feel about outdoor education. It is important to communicate with all members of the school.
- Work on a project that will get noticed in a favorable way.
- Stay positive – you are not going to have support from everyone. Take the few people who support you as a victory.
- My favorite resources are from David Sobel. His books, Childhood and Nature: Design Principles for Educators and Place & Community-Based Education in Schools include several examples of place-based education.
When teachers are given the freedom to create meaningful opportunities for students, the experiences in turn will improve the community as well as the well-being of the student. And that is the ultimate goal every teacher has for his or her students.
About the Author
Ashley Whitehead teaches multi-age (which consists of grades kindergarten through second) in Gainesville, Florida. She also leads an after-school Green Team that includes seventeen third through fifth grade students. She holds a Master’s Degree in Foundations of Education with a focus on Education for Sustainability from Antioch University. She feels fortunate that she had a childhood full of nature and wonder. She is passionate about getting all children outside to learn. Her greatest assets are her family and all the zealous people she has met along the way.