Education

The Lansing School District is looking to create an outdoor classroom that looks similar to this.

Often when the snow melts, the weather improves and the sun is too much to bear after a season of clouds, students will talk their teachers into letting them go outside for class.

Usually it means a high school English class takes a trip out to the hill to read or a Spanish class works on vocabulary outside the classroom window. For younger students, it’s a part of the learning experience that’s beginning to gain more traction in youth development.

The Lansing School District will take outdoor learning a step further with an outdoor classroom, which was part of the capital project passed by a 240-32 vote Thursday, Dec. 8. It’s a $4.95 million project funded with grants, an already established $1.8 million capital reserve fund balance and zero additional tax burden.

The improvements include work at the elementary school, middle school and high school.

“We have actually been getting requests for a number of years from both teachers and students to have an outdoor play space that was covered,” superintendent Chris Pettograsso said before the vote.

“We have recess year-round here and it started out asking for some shade for the winter and summer months; a space to do some game play outside.

“Then as we started to do some research, we came to look more into an instructional space as well for our science classes, our P.E. classes. It sort of morphs into an outdoor instructional space.”

R. C. Buckley Elementary school principal Lorri Whiteman did much of the research for the project, but said most of her information came from first-hand experience with outdoor classrooms at other jobs.

Much of the research on outdoor classrooms is based on teaching students in nature whereas Lansing’s classroom will be next to the playground where it will also serve as a covered area during recess.

In a video for the capital vote, Whiteman said it will offer students multi-sensory experiences, an increased engagement in learning styles and an opportunity for interdisciplinary studies, all aspects supported by studies on the topic.

Though the basic idea is therefore different, there are still some crossover benefits to having the classroom.

Studies such as the 2009-10 collaboration between the Child Educational Center in La Canada, California, and Dimensions Educational Research Foundation in Lincoln, Nebraska, focus on children’s exploration in nature based on the the fact more of their hours are spent indoors nowadays instead of outside.

The study was based on children nine months to 5 years--the lower end of elementary age--and asserted that though adults see “messing about” as frivolous, it leads children to a greater understanding of the world and therefore other subjects as well as a sense of satisfaction in discovery.

Three key themes rose out of the study: foundational skills developed, characteristics that supported child-initiated skill development and the teacher’s role in supporting it.

They are themes that are found in much of the research around getting kids into nature.

Dr. Beth Klein, a professor in the childhood/early education department at SUNY Cortland, pointed to mental and health benefits to the students, citing less anxiety and stress on a weekly or daily basis.

She said there’s also research that shows students do better academically.

Klein co-chairs the New York State Outdoor Education Association (NYSOEA) Environmental Literacy Plan Committee, which is leading the development of a statewide environmental literacy plan.

She said the Cortland teaching program provides an in-depth education in outdoor education “so that they’ll go do it as well” in their classrooms post-graduation.

Lansing’s plan for an outdoor classroom is a little different than the idea of putting a learning environment in the woods and Klein said the benefits will “depend on how they’re using it.”

“It’s a good place as a kick-off for activities,” she said. “They’re a really good tool to get the kids outside.”

The students will see a benefit if teachers are using the space for exploration, such as the results of research from the earlier study.

Teachers in the study detailed examples of “rich descriptive language” and imaginative thinking that showed understanding. Children learned math, science and engineering skills by working directly with real-life problems that would otherwise be written on a blackboard, dry-erase board or PowerPoint.

Three 4-year-old children in the study decided the tree was “hungry,” hence why it was dying after losing its leaves in the autumn.

The children “cooked” for the tree by filling tires with leaves that would turn into maple syrup.

A pro to Lansing’s classroom is that it’s a stationary location, providing a contained area that is known as a place where kids should focus and follow directions instead of thinking it’s recess time or an excuse to goof off.

“It tends to get more teachers outside and using the outdoor environment because they have that space,” Klein said.

In her classes Klein uses the book, “To Look Closely: Science and Literature in the Natural World,” by former Ithaca School District teacher Laurie Rubin.

Rubin, a first-and-second-grade teacher for 23 years at Ithaca, demonstrates in the book how nature can help students become “careful, intentional observers of all they see, growing into stronger readers, writers, mathematicians, and scientists in the process.”

Klein made nature learning a basis of her teachings at Ithaca.

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