Being outside ‘increases their learning to another level’

  • Mason Gilman looks for ants near the raised garden beds in the back of Maple Street School in Contoocook on Tuesday. GEOFF FORESTER / Monitor staff

  • Mason Gilman points to web worms in the trees around Maple Street School as fellow students Caroline Chehade and Chase Leach look on in the outdoor classroom behind Maple Street School in Contoocook on Tuesday. GEOFF FORESTER / Monitor staff

Monitor staff
Published: 9/23/2021 5:27:21 PM

On Tuesday morning, a cluster of about 14 sixth-graders sat in small groups on stumps behind Maple Street School in Hopkinton. Each student had a clipboard and worksheet, and were engrossed in an ecosystems lesson that had them identifying living and non-living items that could be found within walking distance of where they were sitting, in the cool morning mist of the schoolyard.

Sixth-grade Teacher Amy Rothe had the students spread out to search for the items – a bird, a berry, a caterpillar, a spiderweb, an acorn, a feather – around the playground, at the base of trees, in the nearby garden beds and in the wooded area beside the fence.

This wasn’t recess, it was their classroom.

Maple Street School has a new outdoor learning space this year, a square plot of land behind the building that teachers have been using for lessons for the past several weeks, on a sign-up basis. For the students, who are in grades 4, 5 and 6, the outdoor classroom provides a change of scenery, a chance to explore nature amid an otherwise digital world and also take an optional mask break, under Hopkinton’s universal indoor masking policy.

“I just saw the need for something more, that would help the kids to enjoy the outdoors and give the teachers an opportunity to do things outside,” said Rothe, who had the idea for the classroom. “When COVID happened, we saw the need to give the kids more breathing room, so to speak.”

The outdoor classroom is divided into four quadrants with nine stump seats in each, lined with wood chips and separated by gravel walkways, an arrangement that allows for smooth segues from full class discussions to small group work. There is a whiteboard that teachers can roll out, and there’s a plan in the works to install a sail shade for sunny days.

Principal Amy Doyle says she was a fan of the idea from the start, as the outdoor classroom would provide a ventilated but structured space for learning during COVID-19.

“Long-term, what we’ve learned from the pandemic is that there are a lot of things that can be done outside and that kids really enjoy that time in the fresh air and the sunshine, but they can engage and they can still be rapt with attention,” Doyle said. 

Outdoors, Doyle said, students can do real-world applications of classroom concepts and write about what they are seeing, smelling and experiencing in nature.

“We know that about kids, that they make that connection within their brain when they are engaged and really feeling inspired and connected to something,” Doyle said. “You can do that in the classroom, but also being outside provides unique and novel opportunities for kids to do that, and that just increases their learning to another level.”

Rothe said it also builds an appreciation for nature.

“I think it puts them more in touch with the environment, it inspires them to be stewards of their environment and their community,” Rothe said. “It teaches them to respect the school and the grounds.”

Many school districts embraced outdoor classrooms during the COVID-19 pandemic. In Stoddard, James Faulkner Elementary School utilized outdoor forest classrooms extensively in the 2020-21 school year, and is continuing that this year, after first cleaning up the plant growth that had accumulated over the summer. Concord schools continue to use outdoor frame tents with folding tables and chairs as much as possible for classes.

In many ways, Hopkinton’s project has been a community effort. The Hopkinton PTA provided funds to build the classroom, and last year’s sixth grade class donated money for the raised garden beds. Hopkinton company OlkonenEarthscapes executed Rothe’s design and provided many of the materials, while Henniker companies HPP Inc. and Stonefalls Gardens donated bark chips for the classroom floor and plants for the raised beds. 

This summer, the school also installed about 12 garden boxes around the perimeter of the backyard space which Rothe says will be adopted by classes that will use it to grow vegetables and do a farm-to-table type project where the veggies are then used in school snacks and lunches.

“I think a lot of kids take it for granted that their parents just go to the grocery store and get their food,” Rothe said. “I want to give them experiences of growing their own food and learning how to grow organically so maybe they can take it home and inspire their families to get some vegetables into their diets if they’re not already, and just feel ownership over what they put in their bodies.”

Rothe’s inspiration for the backyard garden boxes came from a pre-existing garden at the front of the school, which was started over seven years ago by school secretary Tracy Martin and features herbs, vegetables, grapes, a peach tree and a chicken coop. That garden was serving as an outdoor learning space long before COVID, and a way for students to see firsthand where their food comes from. The school also has a composting program tied to the gardens, with funding from the Hopkinton Public Schools Foundation, where students are taught the concepts of reduce, reuse, recycle and repurpose (and rot!) in the backyard bins.

Rothe hopes Maple Street’s newest classroom will serve as an inspiration.

“It’s new for us, and hopefully will inspire some other schools in the district and other schools to do the same,” she said.


Eileen O

Eileen O'Grady is a Report for America corps member covering education for the Concord Monitor since spring 2020. O’Grady is the former managing editor of Scope magazine at Northeastern University in Boston, where she reported on social justice issues, community activism, local politics and the COVID-19 pandemic. She is a native Vermonter and worked as a reporter covering local politics for the Shelburne News and the Citizen. Her work has also appeared in The Boston Globe, U.S. News & World Report, The Bay State Banner, and VTDigger. She has a master’s degree in journalism from Northeastern University and a bachelor’s degree in politics and French from Mount Holyoke College, where she served as news editor for the Mount Holyoke News from 2017-2018.



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