Schools illustrate the ingenuity – and the challenges – of outdoor class

  • Teacher Jacquelyn Cornwell, who teaches a small combined class of 12 second, third and fourth grade students, starts her outdoor class at James Faulkner Elementary School in Stoddard on Wednesday, October 13, 2020. GEOFF FORESTER—Monitor staff

  • Students Paokeo Marsh (left) and Xavier Darcy work on their student projects in an outdoor class that they hope to use through the winter.

  • Fifth-grader Jakoby Ellis sits in his hammock during an outdoor class.

  • Students move from the school into the woods to begin their outdoor class at James Faulkner Elementary School in Stoddard on Wednesday, October 14, 2020. GEOFF FORESTER—Monitor staff

  • Teacher Amanda Bridges writes on a chalkboard during an outdoor class at James Faulkner Elementary School in Stoddard on Wednesday, October 14, 2020. GEOFF FORESTER—Monitor staff

  • Teacher Amanda Bridges conducts an outdoor class at the James Faulkner Elementary School in Stoddard on Wednesday, October 14, 2020. GEOFF FORESTER—Monitor staff

  • Teacher Amanda Bridges writes on a chalkboard at her outdoor class at James Faulkner Elementary School in Stoddard. GEOFF FORESTER photos / Monitor staff

  • Teacher Amanda Bridges conducts an outdoor class at James Faulkner Elementary School in Stoddard on Wednesday. GEOFF FORESTER photos / Monitor staff

Monitor staff
Published: 10/17/2020 4:43:55 PM

At James Faulkner Elementary School in Stoddard, fourth and fifth graders started out their year in an unusual way – they built their own classroom.

In the first three weeks of school, with permission from the town, the group of about 15 students, led by teacher Amanda Bridges, cleared leaves, rocks and branches from a small patch of forest near the school building. The end result is an open-air classroom with a rain tarp, fire pit, rock seating, portable chalkboard and hammocks strung between trees.

“They were so imaginative, using their imaginations in such interesting ways especially when they were building camp and it was a lot more creative and hard work labor stuff in our day,” said Bridges. “They were creating a nature playground.”

Due to COVID-19, James Faulkner Elementary students are either fully in-person or fully remote this year, so class sizes are reduced. The idea to build an outdoor classroom capable of being used through the winter came to teacher Amanda Bridges after she got her teaching assignment, which was to teach in-person five days a week.

“Being outside was the healthiest, safest place to be,” Bridges said. “If I have to be there, I am going to be outside with my kids as much as humanly possible.”

Many New Hampshire schools have been experimenting – to varying extents – with holding class outdoors this year, as the increased airflow offers an extra level of protection from COVID-19. Teachers say it not only helps everyone be safer, but it is also allowing them to experiment with an alternative model of education, outside of the traditional four-walled classroom.

Getting to work

From the start, Bridges saw the creation of the classroom as an opportunity for a lesson in team-building, creativity, communication and physical exercise. The kids drew up their designs for what the classroom could look like. They got a lesson on how to use an hand saw and took turns cutting down saplings and moving them aside, with the assistance of facilities manager Mike Sheehan, who was a former arborist.

“You give the kids an ounce of responsibility and typically they will just run with it,” Bridges said. “I taught them ‘its a tool not a toy.’ The kids took a lot of pride in it and were really excited.”

Now that the classroom is finished, the students spend an average of four and a half hours a day en plein air for all their classes, snacks and lunch breaks. The kids are equipped with rain gear, but if the weather is truly dangerous – a thunderstorm for example – they would go inside. Otherwise, the only time they spend in the school building is at the beginning of the day and the end of the day, with an indoor break in the middle for warming up and hand-washing. Additionally, lessons that require computer technology have to happen indoors.

Bridges says she fully intends to keep the kids learning in the outdoor classroom through the winter, with the help of a town-approved camp fire and lots of warm clothes.

“The deputy fire warden came and inspected the fire pit the kids had designed and they got their permit,” Bridges said. “Soon we will have our first celebratory camp fire.”

Bridges’ classroom is one of two outdoor classrooms being used at James Faulkner Elementary School this fall. Teacher Jacquelyn Cornwell, who teaches a small combined class of 12 second-, third- and fourth-grade students, actually started her classroom before the pandemic, as part of her wilderness skills after-school club (Cornwell was an outdoor educator before she became a public school teacher). But the classroom was mainly used for specific activities like a science lesson or a writing activity.

“I created the space to allow students a learning experience in constructing shelters outdoors, building a cooking fire, and exploring nature in a respectful way,” Cornwell said. “With the advent of COVID-19, I decided to ramp up its use. Now we’re outside for several hours a day using the space as our classroom.”

Cornwell’s outdoor classroom space is located near the school building and has a large tarp strung from trees, and desks made from wooden planks balanced across tree stumps. Students sit six feet apart on wooden benches, yoga mats or upside-down buckets.

Cornwell says she will reduce the amount of time her class stays outside this winter in Stoddard, since she teaches younger children who may not be as resilient to the cold. But they will still be outside for a couple hours a day.

“I will work in an outdoor movement type of thing, but it might not be possible to do writing, reading, subjects you really have to sit still for just because their bodies can’t take the cold,” Cornwell said.

She said the trickiest part is having to plan ahead and make sure everyone brings the materials they need for the day.

“I say, ‘grab your nature journal and your pencil,’ but by the time they get to their spot, someone has dropped their pencil,” Cornwell said. “I have extra food, forks, straws, napkins. I have extra pencils, tape if someone rips their paper.”

Others heading out

Outdoor classrooms have been embraced – albeit to a lesser extent – by other public schools this fall, many of whom rented party tents to hold classes when the weather is nice.

Concord School District’s maintenance department rented tents for every school. At Broken Ground School, a group of new American ELL students attended in person when most of the district was remote in September, and had classes outdoors every day under the tents. Now that the school is in a hybrid model with class sizes of eight to 11 students, the school’s four tents are used for lunch so students can take their masks off to eat. One class does their morning meetings outside, and some classes have students outside with their Chromebooks for learning activities, too.

“It’s been nice to just have the kids be outside and have a change of pace,” said Broken Ground School principal Susan Lauze. “They can take a mask break out there, which is nice.”

Right now, classes at Broken Ground School stay inside when it’s raining. Lauze said they are still deciding how much students will be outdoors as the weather gets colder.

“We’re trying to work with families about sending an extra layer – jackets and everything – so they can be comfortable going outside,” Lauze said. “We will keep going out as much as we can and using the outdoor spaces because there is a lot to learn in those outdoor areas.”

Loudon Elementary School, Deerfield Community School, Dublin School, Acton Academy New Hampshire and the Contoocook Valley School District are some of the other schools that have held outdoor classes this year.

Some schools that already embrace a nature-based education philosophy, like High Mowing School in Wilton and Mountain Village Charter School in Plymouth, are taking the same approach as James Faulkner Elementary and spending the majority of the day outside, setting up outdoor shelters so they can stay outside even in inclement weather.

Making memories

Cornwell said in the past she has talked with educators who say they wouldn’t want to hold class outside, for fear their students would be distracted and fail to pay attention. But this year, Cornwell has noticed the opposite. One rainy day she was forced to bring her class indoors after their rain tarp ripped off in the wind. Cornwell said the difference in her students’ behavior once they were all inside was noticeable.

“Their focus was off, their silliness was through the roof,” Cornwell said. “I was like, ‘wow.’ This is the first time with this group when I saw they are so much more calm and available for learning outside, versus inside all day long.”

Bridges said one of her favorite things about the forest classroom is having each student set up a hammock to be their own personal space that no one else can touch. The students use the hammocks for quiet alone time, to take off their masks and work on assignments away from the full group.

“My hope for these students is what they remember is, ‘that was the year we went to school outside’ and not ‘that was the year of COVID-19’,” Bridges 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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