School’s Out(side): Outdoor Classrooms

Laurie Sullivan/Creative Commons 2.0
 By Kim Foley MacKinnon

In the past, getting city school kids outdoors meant playing handball in a brick courtyard. These days, more and more educators are finding creative ways to integrate outdoor learning into their curricula, with efforts ranging from planting rooftop gardens to transforming parking lots into outdoor labs.

One such initiative is New York City’s The Natural Classroom, a parks department program designed to expose students to the different ecosystems of the city. Teachers and students visit a park and take part in a series of hands-on activities led by an urban park ranger. Thirteen distinct programs are available for students in grades K–8.

Farther north, Boston has taken a more on-site approach. The Boston Schoolyard Initiative, founded in 1995, has turned 88 schoolyards into centers for play, learning, and community. In fact, since 2007, an outdoor classroom has been included in every Boston Public Schools schoolyard renovation. With elements such as play equipment, public art, and outdoor furniture, these areas are specially designed to support teaching and learning, providing a dose of nature just outside the school door. Each has a sample woodland, urban meadow, or planting beds; some have a combination. There’s even a greenhouse at Boston Latin Academy and a wetland at West Roxbury High School.

For those wondering whether an outdoor classroom can make much of a difference in a child’s life, the evidence is piling up. In 2013, The University of Chicago carried out an independent study on the Boston Schoolyard Initiative, finding that participation in outdoor science lessons (as reported by teachers or students) is associated with higher levels of several positive attitudes, behaviors, and activities. Teachers and students reported authentic, meaningful experiences during outdoor science instruction; students indicated higher interest in and self-efficacy for science; and, overwhelmingly, students reported loving going outdoors for science instruction.

“Teachers in the Boston Public Schools have demonstrated the value and power of bringing students outdoors to learn about science and nature,” says Myrna Johnson, Boston Schoolyard Initiative’s executive director. “The work in Boston sends a message to other school districts that science teachers can effectively conduct outdoor science lessons, with positive impacts for both students and teachers.”

There are plenty of other approaches to encourage learning outside of the classroom, and sometimes it’s the students leading the way. At Boston Latin School, students run a hydroponic farm right outside their cafeteria, using a repurposed shipping container from Freight Farms in which they plant, tend, and harvest crops during study periods and after school.

A great resource for teachers and parents interested in outdoor learning spaces is the 2012 book Cultivating Outdoor Classrooms, by Eric Nelson. An early leader in the field, Nelson cofounded the Child Educational Center in Pasadena, Ca., in 1979 and manages the Outdoor Classroom Project, an initiative of the center. He also developed a course on outdoor classrooms, which has evolved into a series of outdoor-specialist trainings. A how-to guide for getting an outdoor classroom off the ground, Nelson’s book covers everything from enlisting community support to space layout and design, with plenty of photos of creative and practical outdoor spaces to inspire readers.

A takeaway lesson for adults? The best way to engage kids in the outdoors is to get them out in it, hands on and out of their seats.

Want to immerse your students in nature? Each year, AMC’s residential environmental education program, A Mountain Classroom, takes 3,500 kids, grades 5 through 12, into the backcountry for hands-on exploration.

For kids ages 3 to 5, check out AMC’s Wee Wanderers; for older kids, read about Teen Wilderness Adventures. Not a teacher but want to work with kids in your community? Find out how you can get involved in AMC’s Youth Opportunities Program.  

Get advice on raising the next generation of outdoor enthusiasts in the Great Kids, Great Outdoors blog and find more trip ideas in AMC’s community for families,