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'A lot of excitement:' Canadian schools increasingly embrace outdoor classrooms

Teacher Joanne Ward and her grade 3/4 students take part in the outdoor classroom of Hazelwood Elementary in St. John's, NL on Thursday September 8, 2016.
Image Credit: THE CANADIAN PRESS/Paul Daly
September 10, 2016 - 1:00 PM

A new classroom at Hazelwood Elementary School in St. John's, N.L., has no walls, windows or desks — in fact, it's not even inside the school.

The outdoor classroom — situated amidst the trees on a circular gravel patch — features a teacher's podium made from stone and a number of stone benches that can accommodate about four children each.

"Getting kids outside is something that really works to their benefit. As an educator, you know it's important for students," said Dale Lambe, principal at Hazelwood Elementary School.

"The outdoor environment is something I think we're looking more at as educators, especially for the younger age group."

Hazelwood's outdoor classroom is part of a growing trend in Canada: Schools building dedicated infrastructure to encourage outdoor learning.

Lambe said he knows of at least four outdoor classrooms in the St. John's area, all of which were built within the last five years.

But the phenomenon of open air learning is widespread, with one school in Saskatchewan installing a small barn and paving stones, and another in New Brunswick building a wooden pirate ship with bench seating.

While the characteristics of outdoor classrooms can vary dramatically from school to school, the benefits of bringing children outdoors to learn are the same, said Cam Collyer of the Toronto-based non-profit Evergreen.

"If you look at it through a health lens, you see you that you have more physical activity, a greater volume of activity and a greater diversity of activity," said Collyer, whose organization has helped Canadian schools establish outdoor classrooms for more than two decades.

"It's physically active learning. So you're using a different learning modality — hands-on learning, multi-sensory learning... Some of the brain research is as simple as, 'You move the body and you activate the brain'."

Students are learning a variety of subjects outdoors, bringing out notebooks for math, language arts and social studies, paint brushes for art and instruments for music class.

Collyer said having a dedicated outdoor classroom also affects the social environment of the school grounds, which historically have been "flat, barren expanses."

"In the short-hand of the research — they're boring, and boring is often the leading edge of negative behaviour," he said. "If there are more destinations, you're drawn to move around, and that breaks up the boredom and creates more positive social interactions."

Teacher Tanya Trembath recalls what happened when she took her Barrie, Ont., kindergarten class outside after a rain shower.

She watched a boy place a snail on his nose, while others allowed the creatures to crawl up their arms. The Hewitt's Creek Public School class ended up collecting 220 snails.

"So you can see how there's so many things you can build on just from that one walk for snails," said Trembath, whose outdoor classroom includes a large sandbox and forest area.

"They're counting snails in their heads. We looked at books and videos about snails. We would draw and label pictures. They built a habitat. So it becomes a huge learning story incorporating math, science, reading and writing."

Hewitt's Creek is part of a board of 86 schools — all of which have outdoor classrooms. Every kindergarten class in the Simcoe County District School Board is encouraged to go outside between 20 and 100 minutes per day.

The board is also the subject of a study that looks at how being outdoors benefits students. The board says six classrooms participated in the study last year — half using the outdoor classroom frequently and the others half infrequently. This year, the study is continuing with 12 classrooms participating.

Hazelwood's outdoor classroom — used by all grade levels — is also equipped with Wi-Fi and children can often be seen sitting side-by-side on the outdoor classroom's stone benches, huddled around an iPad.

Lambe said technology is changing the way children learn, making it all the more important to get them acquainted with nature.

"We need to be looking at different venues and different settings for student learning. The way they learn is changing and the styles of learning are changing," said Lambe, citing the use of educational tablet apps.

"(The outdoor classroom) adds to the school and it adds to the children's excitement. If their teacher says, 'Tomorrow we're going to the outdoor classroom,' it comes with a lot of excitement."

News from © The Canadian Press, 2016
The Canadian Press

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