Outdoor Classrooms

Bringing Joy and Connection Back to Students

Students having snack in “The Clearing”- Photo by Alissa Alteri Shea

We could all use a little joy and magic, especially in the midst of a pandemic. That is exactly what we found when my first-grade class went down to The Clearing, a newly created outdoor classroom in the woods behind our school.

It didn’t take long to get there. We held onto our long rope, children spaced evenly 6 feet apart, as we walked along the trail to this spot near the stream. When we got there, kids dropped their backpacks and ran to find their own tree stump to sit on while teachers passed out hand sanitizer. It was snack time, and masks could come off for a short time.

As they waited for their little bag of Goldfish pretzels, the kids wrapped themselves in cozy down blankets to keep away the November chill in the air that was now here to stay. Water rushed by in the stream, and voices rose in laughter as kids told stories. They were so happy to be back together again after seven long months away from school, where much of their learning took place from a little muted square on a Google Meet screen.

Today they were free, and they could all talk at once. Their excitement was loud. It had been a long time since I heard a chorus of children’s voices, and the music was nice. When they were done eating, the masks went back on, and children chased each other through the trees, explored the forest, built fairy houses, and created a seesaw out of fallen trees. Some started to identify treasures growing on the ground. “That’s ground ivy! I see a mushroom! It looks like a sea anemone!” It didn’t matter what it was. It was just nice to make a discovery with a friend again. We had only been back to in-person school for a week, and being with friends again was the real treasure.

Running freely through the woods that morning with sunlight streaming through the treetops gave us just what we needed: a little joy, comfort, and protection away from the coronavirus world these children had now grown accustomed to. A magical place where six-year-old children were allowed to play and be free. Their teachers let out a sigh of relief, too. For a moment, we could also be free. Free to breathe the fresh air and observe the scene unfolding around us, a joyful and magical scene tucked away in the woods behind our school.

This outdoor classroom wasn’t always there. The idea was born only a few short weeks before. The K-1 teaching staff was busily preparing to welcome students back into the school building after several long months of remote learning. In planning for the safety protocols that needed to be put in place- handwashing, mask-wearing, and physical distancing — we knew life in the classroom just wouldn’t be the same as we were used to. Supplies would all have to be stored individually, preventing shared projects or activities. To maintain physical distance, children would not have the same freedom to move around the room like they were used to, so they would need to have an assigned spot to work in. Also, there were concerns about ventilation in the building and whether the air quality inside was safe enough to prevent transmission of the virus. As a result of all these challenges, we knew we needed to create a safe alternative to keeping these children inside all day trapped to their little yoga mat workspace. We knew we had to come up with another solution. We also knew it was not going to be easy to do.

I had recently taken a class in the Nature-Based Early Childhood Education program at Antioch University and joined the Inside-Outside: Nature-Based Educators of New England community, where I read lots of examples about teachers and students working together outside, especially in response to the pandemic. The Inside-Outside advisory group wrote a position statement on the benefits of outdoor education in response to COVID-19, which inspired our district to invite teachers from Antioch to lead a one-day professional development training for all teachers on outdoor education. I was able to attend along with many of my colleagues. We knew others in our district would be making attempts to work outside with their students, too. This seemed like a good time to give it a try. And that’s how the idea for outdoor classrooms at our school was born.

The first thing we did was go to administration and PTO to see if we had their support for this idea, knowing it would take resources we did not have. They were enthusiastic and encouraged us to go for it. We reached out to other teachers in our school for ideas and surveyed our school campus to identify places that could be used for outdoor classroom space. Some areas already existed: a greenhouse, a circle of stones near the playground, a courtyard that offered protective walls, and a forest with trails that bordered the school property. Some of these spaces wouldn’t need much to become usable workspaces. We brainstormed ideas of what we would ideally like to see in each space based on models of other outdoor classrooms we had seen. Then we came up with a wishlist and sent it out to the school community.

Slowly, donations started pouring in: whiteboards, mulch, tree stumps, hammocks, tarps, down blankets, and so much more. The community was excited. People we didn’t even know were offering their support. We set a date for a Community Work Day just one week after K-1 students had returned to school and hoped people would show up to help us build these outdoor spaces. We sent out a lot of reminders. We had a lot of work to do.

Once the day arrived, we were ready. We identified six spaces on the school campus that we wanted to turn into outdoor classrooms. We made a list of what we would like to see happen in each one and gathered all the supplies we would need. Rakes, shovels, wheelbarrows, tarps, and ropes. We set up a table with hand sanitizer, cookies, apples, and water bottles for any volunteers who might show up. Then we waited.

Slowly, cars started arriving. Teachers, parents, grandparents, our current and former principal, community members. They all showed up. They wanted to help. I led them around to each of our worksites and explained our hopes for the day. Then everyone got to work.

In The Greenhouse, we covered garden beds with plywood so kids could use them as work surfaces in a protected space on cold days. In The Fort, we hung tarps, hammocks and put up mini tents so kids could have individual spaces for reading and conferencing with teachers. In The Circle of Stones, we raked mulch and moved tree stumps to define a clear learning space and hung a whiteboard between two trees to use during lessons. In The Clearing, we used a wheelbarrow to roll 25 tree stumps across the entire school property and then pushed them down a huge hill to create a classroom space in the woods right next to the stream. On Kindergarten Hill, we hung a huge tarp and a whiteboard so kids would have a protected area to work, play and sled in the winter. In The Courtyard, we put up a tent and set up chairs to create easy access to outdoor space from inside the school building. By the end of the day, we had six outdoor classrooms ready to be used by teachers and students.

One of the best parts of the day wasn’t just creating these classrooms. It was the community spirit that made it happen. People coming out to work alongside each other (at a distance!) to create safe learning spaces for our students. Working hard in a shared effort to make a safe way for our children to be together again. There were smiles, laughter, and people jumping in to help with projects. Talents being offered. Outdoor adventure experts, carpenters, landscapers, determined four-year-olds rolling tree stumps. They all showed up. In the midst of a pandemic, which has largely kept us apart, people came together to work on this effort for our children.

In doing so, it reminded us that we are a community. We can work together to create something beautiful out of a very challenging and sad time. We can do it if we try. Our talented helpers rallied together to roll heavy tree stumps, nail in plywood, level whiteboards, secure tarps, rake mulch, and clear trails through the woods. The basket of cookies on the table greeting the volunteers was a small way to say thank you. The happy voices of children running to these outdoor classrooms the next day were the real thank you, the only thank you anyone needed. Coming together to contribute towards a shared effort made us feel hopeful and purposeful again.

In the midst of a pandemic, I learned there may be something more important school communities need to provide for their children, other than just academics. Coming together as a community to create opportunities for joy, connection, and healing is also important. It is one of the most important things we can do to care for our little people’s social and emotional health during these challenging times while also providing safe learning opportunities to happen again.

Creating these outdoor classrooms did just that.

Teacher, Traveler, Writer. Believer in justice for all. Most importantly, Mom of two boys.