Schools Take Classes Outside
Area schools cultivate a fresh educational trend: conducting classes outdoors.
Schools in the Delaware Valley are taking advantage of the area's marvelous natural resources, teaching environmentalism, science, social studies, math and more in outdoor classes.
It’s the classic classroom tableau: kids sitting at their desks, forlornly staring out the window, wishing they were outside. Area schools are heeding the siren song of Mother Nature, recognizing the educational opportunities inherent in conducting classes outdoors. And subjects aren’t limited to just science and nature. Math, social studies and literature all have practical applications for outdoor learning, too, whether kids are counting tree rings or reading pastoral literature.
“To be able to learn about something in a classroom and then immediately apply it outside makes learning that much more relevant and motivates the students that much more,” says Jean Wallace, CEO of the Green Woods Charter School in Philadelphia. Here, fourth-graders are immersed in a yearlong study of the history, geography and science of the Delaware River Watershed, and first-graders learn about water systems, wetlands and ponds. “They go to John Heinz National Wildlife Refuge several times throughout the year to look at the marsh and wetlands habitats, so they can compare and contrast the diversity of wildlife that they see in late fall and then again in the spring,” says Wallace.
Green Woods is so bullish on outdoor education it is building a new facility with three and a half acres designed specifically for seamless integration of indoor and outdoor learning. Current plans incorporate a pond, stream, wetlands, rain gardens, potting sheds and docks.
Alder Middle School in Egg Harbor, NJ earned a US Department of Education Green Ribbon School award in large part due to its Catawba Project, a grassroots environmental education program. “Service learning and hands-on projects are an extension of the indoor classroom,” explains principal Joe Marinelli. Each year, Alder students identify an individual project where they want to make an impact. “Last year we built a community teaching garden in our township and this year we are trying to solve the school’s recycling problem to reduce our carbon footprint,” says sixth-grade teacher John Jones.
“Not all kids do their best learning sitting down in a classroom,” Jones continues. “The environment is an easy thing to get them passionate about because it involves nature and wildlife. Now they are learning because they want to solve a problem and make a difference.”
A changing culture
“Kids are naturally curious,” reasons Tonyea Mead, science education associate for the Delaware Department of Education. “They want to be outside.” New Jersey and Delaware are both lead states in the Next Generation Science Standards development process. “That involves how humans impact the world and how we can get children outside,” Mead explains.
Delaware’s Children in Nature Task Force was designed specifically to do just that. “Many times, students think science comes in a box,” says Mead. “We are promoting an outside component connecting the classroom to the natural world. In the real world there are eco-systems everywhere, in a schoolyard habitat or a stream. We are pushing teachers to give students more outdoo rexperiences.”
“The idea is to give kids a chance to explore and engage in unstructured ways, and to be able to actually get out and experience it rather than listening to a teacher talk about it,” explains Mike Heinz, science coordinator for the NJ Department of Education. New Jersey Audubon, he says, is one organization that helps schools “find and develop outdoor education space right on the campus.”
“The culture has changed,” insists Jones, excited that his Alder students “now identify themselves as part of an environmentally forward-thinking school.”
Terri Akman is a contributing writer to MetroKids.