Learning gardens: Educators take class outside
Children benefit from outdoor education programs
In 2020, Katie Saiz and her husband, Stan, opened Green Gate Children’s School, a nature-based private school in Wichita, Kan. The pair had already operated an early childhood education program out of their home since 2008, but parents of graduating preschoolers often told the Saizes they wanted their children to continue to benefit from an outdoor model.
“It just wasn’t something that was available in most places, especially here in the Midwest,” said Katie, who has degrees in child development and literacy. “We just basically launched sort of an experiment: Will there be an interest for this?”
The pandemic spurred growing interest in nature-based education as teachers across the country looked for ways to move classes outside to prevent virus transmission. Even as pandemic concerns wane and schools return to pre-pandemic practices, some schools and families are continuing with nature-based education. Enough schools and educators have shown interest in the model that the University of Cincinnati announced this summer an online degree option in early childhood education with a focus on nature-based education.
Some outdoor preschool programs focus on other content areas such as music but also spend considerable time outside. In 2017, the Natural Start Alliance, a program of the North American Association for Environmental Education, surveyed preschool and kindergarten programs and counted about 250. By 2020, the number had jumped to 585, according to the alliance’s director, Christy Merrick.
Studies have found that simply being in a classroom with a view of outside improved students’ concentration. They have also shown that time in nature can boost attention for students with ADHD. Merrick said most people realize that children benefit physically and developmentally from spending time outside. But since the pandemic, she said more people are recognizing another benefit to mental health.
At Green Gate Children’s School, about 80 students play and learn on the 2.5-acre property. The school still offers a preschool program for 27 kids ages 3-5, and 53 students attend the K-6 program. Green Gate has seven employees with a variety of degrees including education, music, art history, and nursing. Outside, children play with a boat filled with sand, climbing structures, a small garden area, and a stack of four large tires that Saiz said the students decided to stack. Five chickens live in the coop and fenced-in run that lines one side of the yard.
While each class has its own indoor space, teachers can take their lessons outside. The school invests in clipboards, lap desks, and outdoor picnic tables so students can learn essentially anywhere on the grounds. Students learn math and science skills when building with real tools, and Stan Saiz, the school’s math and science specialist, talks with them about their predictions for projects like making a rocket.
Saiz said that several students with ADHD, high-functioning autism, or anxiety have benefited from the nature- and play-based model. Some students initially bring weighted blankets, noise-canceling headphones, or other items to help them deal with their environments, but they often stop using them while at school, Saiz said. And some children taking anxiety medications have been able to lower their dosages since starting at Green Gate.
Ellen Veselack is the associate director of consulting and professional development at the Outdoor Classroom Project and the director of a nature-based preschool program at the Child Educational Center in California. She said that many educators say they like the idea of outdoor learning but don’t have time to implement it because of their full class schedule. But she wants to flip that perception: “I want people to say, ‘We have been doing so much outdoors that we haven’t had time to go indoors—because it’s that much better.’”
At Veselack’s program, the outdoor space is divided into areas just like an indoor classroom with spaces for blocks, music, art, and books. Learning can be messy. Veselack related how “little scientists” recently made a river in the sandbox. “This isn’t going to happen on an asphalt playground with a climbing structure,” she said.
The number of elementary, middle, or high school nature-based programs is likely lower than nature-based preschools, but Robert Sendrey, a program director at the National Environmental Education Foundation, said older students also benefit from the model. He added that a sensory-rich experience is much more engaging than learning from a book or a screen, though that can be hard to measure. “[The nature-based model] doesn’t lend itself to taking tests,” he said. “When we talk about accountability in education, we have to find that happy medium where we can prove the students are learning what we say they are.”
To demonstrate that learning, Sendrey said some students have worked on projects about endangered species at local national parks, providing recommendations for resource managers. Others have studied watershed water quality issues at city golf courses or helped monitor a wasp population introduced in Colorado to counter an invasive plant. “We’re engaging them in much more than you can measure on any test,” he said.
Schools attempting to implement nature-based education can run into other challenges. Some exclusively or predominantly outdoor programs struggle with licensing, said Merrick. Licensing regulations are often designed with classrooms—not outdoor spaces—in mind. While most nature-based programs also have indoor classrooms and therefore have no problem securing licensing, Merrick said, some choose to limit their hours or class sizes to avoid a licensing requirement.
And what about the weather? Merrick pointed to Minnesota, a frontrunner in nature-based education with about 40 nature-based preschool programs in 2020 despite its winter weather. “Obviously, it is possible to have children learning outdoors in all kinds of weather,” she said.
On a recent September day at Green Gate Children’s School in Kansas, the door between the main indoor learning area and the outdoor learning space remained open, with students and the two school dogs going in and out at will. But on days when the weather is not so friendly?
“We’re still outside,” Saiz said, adding that the students still get to choose whether to be inside or outside, unless there is dangerous weather. As long as students have brought clothing appropriate for weather conditions, they are allowed to be outside if they like. “But our kids jump in the puddles, they’re out there enjoying all different types of weather … The kids don’t care what the weather is, they’re right out there with it.”
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