This outdoor classroom at St. Catherine’s Elementary in Halifax’s west end includes a garden. — Photo: Suzanne Rent

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Getting kids outside and into nature to learn has plenty of benefits, but some parents and teachers say they’re not sure how outdoor classrooms and outdoor learning, which the province is encouraging in its back-to-school plan, could work this upcoming school year.

Stacey Rudderham is one of the administrators with a Facebook group called Nova Scotia Parents for Public Education. She says members of that group have been discussing the outdoor classroom options mentioned in the back-to-school plan, and they’re sharing their skepticism about the idea.

“A lot of people the first thing they mention is the weather,” Rudderham says. “We don’t know what our weather will be in five minutes. We only have the first month of school where we don’t worry about the wind and the rain and so on that comes at the end of September and October. And in the spring, it’s hit and miss when we’re going to see spring. I’m not saying kids shouldn’t go out in the wintertime, but you can’t sit in the cold in the winter. There’s really only one [outdoor] classroom per school, but how many classrooms are in the school that would be vying for time in an outdoor classroom, if that’s supposed to be an option.”

Outdoor learning is mentioned several times in the province’s 36-page back-to-school plan:

For pre-primary: “Early childhood educators are encouraged to conduct learning and play activities in the outdoor space as much as possible, with a goal of at least 40 per cent of the day, when they are able to do so.”

“Protocols for outdoor play/learning, food, cleaning, and sharing are the same as those for a full opening of school.”

For grades Primary to 12: “Teachers are also encouraged to hold classes outside as much as possible. Priority for outdoor classes should be given to physical education.”

Under curriculum: “For example, physical education will be outdoors, when possible, and activities that require students to come into contact with one another will be limited.”

Under physical distancing and co-horting/grouping: “Strategies include minimizing class size, rearranging classrooms and common areas and altering schedules to reduce density through indoor and outdoor spaces.”

“Cohorting, or grouping the same students and staff together each day, limits exposure by reducing the number of close contacts in indoor and outdoor settings.”

And under Outdoor activities:

  • Move activities/classes outdoors whenever possible, including learning activities and meal times. Consider need for appropriate clothing.
  • Maintain cohorts/groups of students and staff wherever possible in outdoor areas. Schools should consider creative strategies to allow multiple cohorts to use different outdoor spaces at the same time.
  • Hands should be washed before and after outdoor activities
  • Avoid field trips (e.g. that require transportation or requires entry into another facility/building)

The plan doesn’t include any examples of how outdoor classrooms could be organized or if more will be built.

Outdoor classrooms aren’t a new idea. There are already a few outdoor classrooms at schools across the province, including at schools within the Halifax Regional Centre for Education. When the Examiner contacted the Halifax Regional Centre for Education on the issue of outdoor classrooms, spokesperson Doug Hadley pointed to examples at two schools, including William King Elementary in Herring Cove and St. Catherine’s Elementary School in the west-end of Halifax, where Hadley says teachers have used the school garden for classes in science, math, language, and art.

“The options are plentiful and we know our teachers and administrators will be both creative and innovative in developing opportunities for students to be learning outside while adhering to public health guidelines,” Hadley says.

William King Elementary in Herring Cove got this outdoor classroom in 2017. — Photo: Suzanne Rent

Rudderham says the outdoor classrooms that do exist, like the one at Ash Lee Jefferson in Fall River, weren’t built or paid for by the province.

“Are they going to go around and build outdoor classrooms so we have them for September?” Rudderham says. “The schools that did it, and the groups that put them in, it was a long time trying to get money, trying to get grants, and the province didn’t contribute to it. It’s a big project with a big undertaking for different parent groups or different community organizations to even get a class like that built at a school.”

The Examiner contacted the Department of Education and Early Childhood Development to see if there were more specific plans or examples in the work for outdoor classrooms. Spokesperson Violet MacLeod sent along this statement:

Our Back to School Plan follows direction from Public Health and advice from pediatricians and psychologists at the IWK. The plan has several, layered public health measures to keep students safe, like staggered recesses and lunches, cohorting classes in elementary schools, separate exits and entrances, increased signage and reminders about good health practices like clean hands. We are also creating space between students within their classrooms and encouraging more learning in outdoor spaces.

Our schools have been using outdoor learning spaces for many years. These spaces can be purposefully designed; however, for years, teachers have been conducting classes wherever they can include green spaces like playgrounds and fields, for things like physical activities, reading, natural science, art and math. In September, each region and CSAP will be encouraging their schools to use outdoor spaces for teaching more often.

Evergreen works with schools to help create outdoor learning spaces. — Photo: Evergreen

Cam Collyer is a senior advisor at Evergreen and principal at People and Place Consulting. Evergreen works with city builders to create healthy, sustainable spaces. Collyer has worked with school boards on outdoor classroom projects and developed Evergreen’s school ground greening program. He says he’s had more conversations about outdoor learning since the pandemic started.

“We’re hearing a call for help and we’re hearing from school boards, who’ve been given the mandate to figure it all out,” Collyer says.

Collyer says the benefits of outdoor learning are numerous.

“You’re engaging children through more of their senses, so there is a deep engagement,” Collyer says. “They’re using their eyes, their sense of smell, their skin with the change in wind. All these things are creating blood flow to the brain, which is helping memory retention, focus.”

Cam Collyer, senior advisor with Evergreen, helps schools create outdoor spaces.

With just over a month before school opens, time is not on the side of schools looking to prepare outdoor learning spaces, but Collyer says schools can start to think about what kind of materials schools can use that are portable and how those materials can be used for hands-on learning experiences.

“This literally can be bundles of sticks, it can be logs,” he says. “And then next step could be can they find a way to store that stuff, outdoors, so it makes it easier to move those materials. It can be ropes, lumber, some schools use tires. Even stones can be used to make things. So that materiality right down to an individual teacher level or principal level, can be organized or materialized as resources are available, as time goes on, as partnerships are built locally. You might have a factory that has things they can provide. You might have an arbourist who can provide some wood chips to bring some materiality.”

Another outdoor learning space designed by Evergreen. — Photo: Evergreen

Collyer says outside the school has traditionally been thought of a secondary space in education, but this pandemic could change that, if parents, teachers, schools, and provinces work together.

“I think we have an opportunity to reframe the schoolground entirely,” Collyer says. “We have a campus for learning that includes the building, and the grounds are larger than that. We need to think that way, invest that way, design that way, and train our teaching staff … so they’re orientated that way. Over time, it’s a more comprehensive effort. It’s not a complex effort. It’s not like this is a brand-new idea. It’s just being emphasized right now. We’re asking the same intentions with greater intensity right now. We won’t see it right away, but we’ll see the signs of it.”

One elementary school teacher in Halifax who didn’t want to be named says while she and other teachers often take students outside for learning, there are challenges.

“Most teachers take their classes outside,” she says. “There are always things you can do outside, but in terms of putting it out there, I feel like the government said, ‘Oh, well they will do outdoor classrooms,’ but they have no stinking clue what that even means. I feel like they have closed their eyes and crossed their fingers and hope teachers will find a way to make everything happen that they say will happen, but there’s no infrastructure to make it happen. It’s like an admission on their part that inside is not very safe.”

The teacher said another issue is that outdoor learning is not just about having the space at the school. There’s a culture around teaching outdoors.

“Outdoor learning in this neck of the woods, in my experience so far, is every once in awhile, you take your kids outside and play games and have fun,” she says. “If teachers knew how to deliver curriculum outdoors effectively, that’s amazing. But we don’t. That’s not something we’re taught here as teachers.

“Nature is a classroom in a million ways, but it would be a whole new thing to learn on top of a million other things that are happening right now. You can say we can teach our kids outside, but there’s a lot of work that needs to be done before that’s possible and effective.”

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Suzanne Rent is a writer, editor, and researcher. You can follow her on Twitter @Suzanne_Rent and on Mastodon

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