Reduced class size. Longer school days. Accountability through testing. Better teachers. Managing the dropout rate. Dealing with unions. Serving special education and English-language-learning students. Safety in school. The list goes on. We know that public education is facing many challenges, and that there are many brilliant minds and kind hearts trying to find solutions to a complex set of problems. But let’s look for a moment at the end user who should be the focus of all this attention: the child.
What motivates a child to learn? Children are active and social beings who have an innate curiosity about the world around them. We should be using these attributes as a springboard into the vast and wonderful world of learning. One way to do this is through a “green schoolyard” that dispenses with the chairs, desks, walls, ceiling, chalkboards, and just about everything else found in an indoor classroom. It is an open, active space that is asymmetrical and sensory-rich, with things to touch, smell, hear, observe, and, yes, even taste. It is a patch of land surrounded by a real-world neighborhood. It teems with possibilities and beckons children to embark together on a journey of discovery. The teacher can even come along.
There are those, like myself, who envision this expanded concept of schools and schooling as a natural path to greater student engagement and increased motivation to learn. We’re part of a green-schoolyard movement actively transforming schools in cities across the country.
Green Schoolyard: the land surrounding a school building designed for outdoor learning, creative play, recreation, and social gathering; typically featuring gardens or “green” spaces as outdoor classrooms for conducting formal and informal hands-on educational activities in a natural setting.
Here’s how it works: We’re sitting on a boulder in a corner of the schoolyard. This boulder is part of a crude circle of rocks that reflect local geology. In fact, the school building itself was partially constructed from this same type of stone. These heavy rocks were quarried long ago by immigrants who came from another country to start new lives here (just like many families today). Can we see any other buildings in the neighborhood built with the same kind of stones? How come the new school annex has been built with other materials? Wait a minute; what is a rock, anyway? We take out our hand lenses and begin to take a really close look at our collection of rocks. What are these little sparkly pieces? Why is this one bumpy and that one smooth? Look at all the bugs under this one. We are engaged in learning. It is not particularly linear, or organized in the traditional way, but it is interesting and has raised many questions. Now, the teacher can take a bunch of curious and excited students back inside to use their texts or the Internet to assist in finding answers.
We have entered the school garden. We pick some mint leaves and put them in water jugs in the sun. Later, we’ll drink solar-heated mint tea. We wonder why the dwarf pine tree has kept its needles, while the apple tree is losing its leaves. We pick up the leaves and add them to our compost pile. A monarch butterfly hovers around our milkweed plant, and a big crow perches on the fence post. Our wind-driven pump helps send water through the irrigation channels we’ve dug. The wind dies down, and the flow of water stops. Our scarecrow, which everyone agrees looks a little like the assistant principal, seems to sigh as the crow alights on his head. We laugh and just feel really good. This is fun!
But enough vignettes. My point is that an active and multifunctional schoolyard doesn’t have to replace the indoor classroom, but can add to the overall mission of schools: educating the whole child. And it’s not as if we have to buy the land—we just need to use what we have creatively. As educators and schoolyard activists can attest, keeping students engaged in the outdoor classroom is not an issue. Kids love to be outside doing stuff. Why not take advantage of this friendly learning environment to further our educational goals and objectives?
There are dozens of good reasons to have an outdoor classroom in every schoolyard. Here are my Top 10:
1. Shifts educational focus from secondary to primary sources. Traditional classroom teaching uses textbooks, lectures, video, and the Internet as instructional tools. The outdoor classroom exposes students through direct experience to nature areas and demonstration models such as weather stations, water-flow systems, and renewable-energy installations.
2. Uses experiential teaching methodologies to engage students. The outdoor classroom fosters active, hands-on, inquiry-based learning in a real-world setting. Through group problem-solving activities, students embrace the learning process and seek final outcomes as well.
3. Makes learning a multisensory experience. By engaging the senses of touch, smell, hearing, and sight, students retain an intimate physical memory of activities that are long-lasting and synergistic. E.O. Wilson’s The Biophilia Hypothesis reminds us that the human species, having evolved in the natural world, has a deeply rooted need to associate and connect with nature.
4. Fosters the use of systems thinking. As a mini-ecosystem, the outdoor classroom emphasizes the interconnectedness of all things. Through exposure to the intricate web of life, students come to understand that complex natural and societal systems often require holistic rather than linear solutions.
5. Lends itself to interdisciplinary studies. In seeking a holistic understanding of the outdoor classroom, it is often both necessary and desirable to employ multiple academic disciplines. Laying out a planting bed requires math skills. Distinguishing native from non-native plants provides an opportunity for social studies. Creating a scarecrow is an art project. A garden journal will foster writing and drawing skills.
6. Recognizes and celebrates differing learning styles. As popularized in Howard Gardner’s theory of multiple intelligences, people have a variety of aptitudes and ways of learning. Although some students thrive in a text-based environment, others will benefit from a more experiential approach. For example, English-learners, special education students, and children whose home life does not make learning a priority—those on the wrong side of achievement gaps—may be able to contribute more in the outdoor classroom.
7. Connects the school to the neighborhood and the world at large. Through learning and stewardship activities, students come to understand that their schoolyard microcosm reflects global environmental issues. Proximity to the surrounding neighborhood often leads to service-learning projects that emphasize social involvement and responsibility. Accessibility to the outdoor classroom provides opportunities for out-of-school-time programming. High visibility and interest encourage local volunteerism.
8. Requires only a modest capital outlay for design and installation. School systems often struggle with budgetary issues in prioritizing initiatives. The cost-benefit ratio for installing and sustaining an outdoor classroom is attractive, and the goal of creating and maintaining one in every schoolyard is achievable.
9. Projects a positive message about public education. Schoolyards can be degraded and unsafe, or vibrant, dynamic open spaces. Either way, we send a message to students and neighborhoods about how much we value the education of our children. The outdoor classroom is a reminder that innovation is alive and well in public education.
10. Blurs the boundaries between academic learning and creative play. Kids love the outdoor classroom. When a teacher asks who wants to go outside, every hand is raised. Absenteeism goes down on outdoor-classroom days. By preserving a child’s innate sense of curiosity and wonder, we foster the active and engaged pursuit of knowledge for a lifetime. Such a child will know that learning can indeed be fun.
Smaller class sizes and longer school days? Sounds like a good idea to me. But let’s first make sure that our kids want to be there. Let’s mix it up and offer them different approaches to instruction that will embrace their many different learning styles. Some adults hate their jobs; others can’t wait to get to work each day. Public education should be aiming to make all young people part of that latter group. We are, after all, trying to foster a generation of lifelong learners.
A version of this article appeared in the September 01, 2010 edition of Education Week as Green Schoolyards as an Element of Reform