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Seeds of Learning

Lessons take root in an outdoor classroom, where fresh air leads to new thinking.

By Mary Ellen Flannery

On a cloudless Alabama morning, it’s hot enough to curl a kindergartner’s hair, and yet the kids are still clamoring to go outside. With summer approaching, the classroom can’t hold their interest—the indoor classroom, that is.

The outdoor classroom, on the other hand, is better than Channel One. It’s fun. It’s dirty. And it provides one of those sneaky educational experiences where students soak up all manner of lessons in animal and plant sciences without realizing they remain rooted in an environment of learning.

“Gently now, hold that green part, not too tightly,” says special ed teacher Peggy Long. Squatting in the veggie patch, her class of third-graders at University Place Elementary in Huntsville gingerly support the spindly stem necks of the baby radishes they are planting.

“Don’t bury it!” squeals one girl.

The radishes root near the cabbage, not far from the oak-leaf hydrangeas, a skip away from the reading bench. A little farther on, a red-slider turtle stretches its tiny nose toward the sun, while other envious students press their faces against a hallway window, wishing for their turn outside.

More than just a garden, this outdoor classroom is one of 2,200-plus state-certified Schoolyard Habitats. From Hawaii to Maine, there are wheelchair accessible nature trails, expansive butterfly gardens, bat houses, and gazebos. In Philadelphia, students harvest marigold and sunflower seeds for sale. A few miles north, they tap maple trees. Out West, in Idaho, students have built solar ovens for cooking and spied on sauntering moose.

With fewer kids walking to school and more spending their afternoons in front of a TV or computer screen, it often falls to educators to nurture a little nature-loving. Done right, an outdoor classroom will not only support a science curriculum, it will also cultivate students’ interest in the outside world. If we want our children to solve our global warming and habitat degradation issues, they’ll need to understand—and care about—the Earth. 

But scientists also say the natural world, with its multi-

sensory stimulation, helps rev up brain function, particularly in our youngest learners. And it’s not just about science lessons. An outdoor classroom can seed a math or history assignment, spark a writing project, and bolster better behavior: At University Place, only the most mannerly students get to feed Nemo and Goldie—two residents of the cascading pond.

“It’s all about ownership,” says Long. Her students plant seeds, water sprouts, and carefully tend to every spotty leaf, and because “they had something to do with everything out here,” she says, “they just love it.”

The Urban Jungle

To Long, a farm girl born and raised on the red clay of Alabama, it seemed almost tragic that her students never saw plants growing outside of those green plastic supermarket pots. Huntsville is no Manhattan, but many of its poorest children still live in an all-asphalt world. Where do their greens come from? The grocery store, obviously!

Of course, it’s not just low-income city kids who can’t connect cabbage to coleslaw. But at Long’s school, 98 percent of the children qualify for free or reduced-price meals, and most live in public housing projects. “I do have one fifth-grader whose mother gardens,” she says, but she figured the rest needed her help.

When Long heard about the Alabama Wildlife Federation’s efforts to support new outdoor classrooms—like their national brethren, they offer grants and assistance—the idea to create such a place didn’t need to germinate for long. She immediately took it to her principal, who gave her an enthusiastic nod.

To see University Place’s outdoor classroom now, you’d never guess it was just a mosquito-loving mud hole two years ago. Stuck between a classroom wing and a media center, it was a narrow corridor of dust in the winter and muck in the summer—no bigger than an 800-square-foot condo. Long’s initial plans  were modest. She figured on a garden where students could learn about things like photosynthesis. Maybe a pond too, so they could observe a habitat up close. But once she shared her vision with colleagues and local business owners, support was overwhelming.

Interested in creating an outdoor classroom at your school? 

Here’s how to get started:

  1. Set up a committee of interested teachers, staff, and parents. An outdoor effort is easier to sustain if lots of people are committed to it.
  2. Talk to custodians and groundskeepers. You don’t want to burden them with the care of the outdoor classroom, but they may have advice or interest.
  3. Take advantage of state and federal resources. Go to the National Wildlife Federation's website for more how-to advice, plus information about grants and lesson plans.
The regional Resource Conservation and Development Council tended her efforts with a $4,600 grant, matched by University Place’s retired librarian. Then, like any self-respecting teacher, Long went begging for more.

All told, she won about $7,000 in formal grants and a whopping $19,000 in other donations and turned the forgotten space into an unlikely Eden with a landscaped pond, drainage marsh, and more tomatoes than Taco Bell. But yes, if you forgo the landscape architect and automatic sprinklers, it can be done for less.

Meeting Standards & More

At University Place, all teachers are welcome to use the classroom, and most do, depending on their interest. It has proved to be most valuable for science teaching—at each grade, specific outdoor tasks have been tied to the state’s standards. The radish-planting third-graders, for example, see first-hand how plants use sunlight to grow. Meanwhile, fifth-graders have taken on a “producers and consumers” unit in the bog. (It was quite a lesson in consumption when the block’s bad boy spider gulped down a dragonfly. “The kids were going nuts!” Long recalls.)

Eventually, these lessons will matter on an Alabama state science test—by 2007, the No Child Left Behind law requires all states to test mastery of specific science standards. Meanwhile, the outdoor classroom has still met Long’s primary mission—to raise environmental awareness for her students.  

And, on that hot spring day, Peggy Long gave the third-graders a final lesson on seedlings of all kinds.

“Remember,” she says, “they need room to grow.”

Photos: David Humber

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