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Can we have class outide?!?

aphorisnt's picture

Whenever the weather finally became warm enough to stay outdoors, when the winds died down and the rains more or less stopped for the year giving way to sun, someone always asked the question: "Can we have class outside?" Something about being free from the four walls of the classroom always felt better to me and those classes outside are the ones I remember most. Even when I truly enjoy what I'm learning, classrooms sometimes start to make me feel a little claustrophobic after spending several hours a day five days a week within their confines, so those classes outside give me a chance to breathe some fresh air and get some vitamin D (I actually had a Spanish teacher in 8th grade who would take our class outside on what she called "vitamin D breaks").

I think the outdoors can serve as a perfect classroom for any subject–the space is wide-open and ever-changing and feels to me very conducive to encouraging a flow of ideas and additionally can offer real-wrold examples and experiential reinforcement of the ideas found in textbooks. If a student is learning about the weather, for example, the teacher can hold class somewhere near the playground and ask students to observe the clouds and try to identify cirrus or cumulus in the sky above. Or in history class if students are learning about the American Revolution, what better way to fully engage students than to go outside and stage the Battle of Yorktown? Even just sitting outside and reading or discussing a novel can do wonders for the attention span and maintaining interest (there is a reason I can provide specific examples of outdoor learning experiences).

Back in Texas at my middle school, we had an outdoor classroom-in-progress that I'm sure has since been completed. As part of two classes I took during that year, animal science and oceanography, we spent a good chunk of the year actually building that classroom: we raised the pavillion, constructed the picnic tables upon which students could work, installed a solar panel on the roof and several fans on the ceiling (10 volt fans that took as little energy to power as possible), we set up a podium at the front, and talked about ways to eventually install a projector system and maybe even a cooling system with misters at the back of the room to keep the classroom survivable June through August. Most of our oceanography and animal science classes subsequently took place outdoors in this classroom, but then so did many of my science classes, some art classes, and one or two English classes. The outdoor area offered general benefits in that some activities (like adding pure sodium to water) needed to take place outside, and it also provided a unique opportunity to engage in an outdoor space. The pavillion was a short walk from our garden and in the years since I left gained a greenhouse and several birdhouses and there was talk of adding a small pond nearby. I was able to learn about the plants in the garden and how to grow and take care of them without the addition of pesticides and fertilizers. I learned how solar power worked from installing and then working with the solar panel, understanding how the pv cells worked and the importance of properly angling the panel for maximum sunlight exposure. I spent time drawing and painting what I could see right outside the school building and having long discussions about poetry, romantic, transcendental, and metaphysical mostly and then writing and sharing my own poems. Honestly, my favorite memories from most of my classes involve experiential and outdoor activities and classes.

I suppose there can be some pitfalls of class outside like the distractions of everything going on nearby, which was probably why my elementary school teachers were so reluctant to indulge our requests, and I feel like using and engaging with that outdoor space can provide unique learning benefits to students that class inside the four walls of a school room simply cannot. As I have said before, there really is no subsitute for actual hands-on experience, and in my opinion, outdoor classes are the perfect way to build that experience into class structure. So here's hoping the next generation of educators won't roll their eyes and sigh when in April they inevitably receive the question.