Outdoor classrooms are powerful teaching tools, and the Outdoor Classroom program at Maclay School, in the early stages of development, is already an award-winning program. The outdoor classrooms at Maclay School include a certified National Wildlife Habitat full of native plants found in the Red Hills Region, a Certified Monarch Waystation butterfly and pollinator garden, eight raised vegetable beds, and a quarter of an acre longleaf pine forest demonstration plot that was built in collaboration with Tall Timbers Research Station. In the near future, a large scale vegetable garden will be built as another outdoor classroom resource and as a food source for the Dining Hall. The outdoor classrooms were designed, built, and are managed by Mrs. Stephanie Cornais, the PreK and Lower School Science Lab teacher.
The purpose of the outdoor classroom and environmental education program at Maclay School is multifaceted. We want to give children the opportunity to connect and experience nature both to increase their learning potential and increase the likelihood that they will protect natural and wild spaces in the future. Humans will only protect and love what they know. These outdoor classrooms are the foundation of fostering a relationship between nature and the child. And not just a relationship where the child is in awe and respectful of nature, but a reciprocal, emotional connection in which the child knows and feels loved by nature. In these outdoor classrooms children feel as if they are a part of the ecosystem, rather than apart from it. These classrooms give our children a connection to their natural heritage.
The outdoor classrooms help all learn children learn more effectively. The create a space to provide multiple opportunities for reflective inquiry, exploring solutions, and experiencing cooperative, hands-on problem solving. The classrooms provide a sensorial learning experience for the child. This is so important for the younger ages, but for all aged children as well. They get to experience the object or topic of study before reading about it through their senses, using their sense of sight, smell, taste and touch. The children are also developing practical skills and cultivating leadership potential.
Further benefits and findings from research about the positive impact of outdoor classrooms include:
- Academic performance improved across curriculum
- Students have a more comprehensive understanding of the world and are aware of diverse viewpoints
- Critical thinking skills improves
- Discipline problems diminishes
- Students exhibit improved proficiency in problem solving and enhanced application of systems thinking.
As children have begun spending more time in front of screens, their understanding of the world around them is coming more from media than their own experiences. It’s not uncommon for today’s children to know more about the rainforest than about the plant and animal life in their own backyard. Nature-based outdoor spaces are once again giving children access to daily explorations in nature. These experiences provide a sensory basis for developing meaningful and foundational science understandings. In an outdoor classroom at Maclay School, children are observing, investigating, devising experiments, problem solving, and learning scientific concepts long before they master scientific vocabulary. As the children observe, reflect, record, and share nature’s patterns and rhythms, they are participating in a process that promotes scientific and ecological awareness, problem solving, and creativity. All children are scientists and the world is their laboratory.
Some additional benefits of outdoor classrooms:
- Shifts educational focus from secondary to primary sources. Traditional classroom teaching uses textbooks, lectures, video, and the internet as instructional tools. The Outdoor Classroom exposes students through direct experience to nature areas and demonstration models such as weather stations, water flow systems, and renewable energy installations.
- Uses experiential teaching methodologies to engage students. The Outdoor Classroom fosters active, hands-on, inquiry-based learning in a real world setting. Through group problem-solving activities students embrace the learning process as well as seeking final outcomes.
- Makes learning a multi-sensory experience. By engaging the senses of touch, smell, hearing, taste and seeing, students retain an intimate physical memory of activities that are long lasting and synergistic. E. O. Wilson’s Biophilia Hypothesis reminds us that the human species, having evolved in the natural world, has a deeply-rooted need to associate and connect with nature.
- Fosters the use of systems thinking. As a mini-ecosystem, the Outdoor Classroom emphasizes the interconnectedness of all things. Through exposure to the intricate web of life, students come to understand that complex natural and societal systems often require holistic rather than linear solutions.
- Lends itself to inter-disciplinary studies. In seeking a holistic understanding of the outdoor classroom it is often necessary, and desirable, to employ multiple academic disciplines. Laying out a planting bed requires math skills. Distinguishing native from non-native plants provides an opportunity for social studies. Creating a scarecrow is an art project. A garden journal will foster writing and drawing skills.
- Recognizes and celebrates differing learning styles. As popularized in Howard Gardner’s Theory of Multiple Intelligences, people have a variety of aptitudes and ways of learning. Although some students thrive in a text-based environment, others will benefit from a more experiential approach. For example, ESL students, SPED students, and students where reading is not prioritized at home – those that comprise the so-called Achievement Gap – may contribute more in the Outdoor Classroom.
- Connects the school to the neighborhood and the world-at-large. Through learning and stewardship activities students come to understand that their schoolyard microcosm reflects global environmental issues. Proximity to the surrounding neighborhood often leads to service learning projects that emphasize social involvement and responsibility. Accessibility to the Outdoor Classroom provides opportunities for out-of-school time programming. High visibility and interest encourages local volunteerism.
- Blurs the boundaries between academic learning and creative play.Kids love the Outdoor Classroom. When a teacher asks who wants to go outside every hand is raised. By preserving a child’s innate sense of curiosity and wonder we will foster active and engaged lifelong learners.
For questions about the Outdoor Classroom and Environmental Education Program at Maclay School please contact Stephanie Cornais at firstname.lastname@example.org.