Creation | Education | Opinion

School’s Out

Even if efforts to move school into the schoolyard is far from perfect at first, school communities may find that they don’t have a choice but to try.

This is my Father’s world. 

This is a meaningful phrase to me as I garden, go about my days, and focus my prayers. This line forms the start to a familiar hymn that was inspired by the Niagara Escarpment as its author, Pastor Maltbie D. Babcock, took frequent walks along the beautiful ridge in Lockport, New York 120 years ago. 

I rest me in the thought / Of rocks and trees, of skies and seas / His hand the wonders wrought.

Today, children (and many adults) typically spend over 90 percent of their days indoors, a historically new phenomenon. Could it be that they miss out and lose out on the sense of wonder that the outdoors inspires if they are not often exposed to it? Author Richard Louv thinks they do, and that they miss out on a lot more too. In Last Child in the Woods, he writes, “The woods were my Ritalin. Nature calmed me, focused me, and yet excited my senses.” He continues, “Nature – the sublime, the harsh, and the beautiful – offers something that the street or mall or computer game cannot. Nature presents the young with something so much greater than they are; it offers an environment where they can easily contemplate infinity and eternity.” 

For those benefits and others, teachers are rediscovering outdoor learning at school. Research repeatedly reveals the following benefits: students have the opportunity to be more active, to be in fresh air, to learn not only cognitively but also experientially, to develop better problem solving skills, physical literacy and better social skills. Being outdoors makes children more observant, more curious and more creative. Moreover, the creation allows them to get to know the Creator better.

This is my Father’s world / He shines in all that’s fair / In the rustling grass I hear Him pass /

He speaks to me everywhere.

Move school outdoors

Now there is a new reason to more urgently consider outdoor learning at school: safety amidst a pandemic. “Move everything outdoors,” wrote Megan McArdle, a Washington Post columnist on July 7, 2020, “Yes, the weather will sometimes be a problem. But . . . we’re long past searching for ideal solutions. We’re now hunting for adequate ones.” 

This is my Father’s world / O let me ne’er forget / That though the wrong seems oft so strong / God is the ruler yet.

A lot of school districts are anticipating being able to host 50 percent classroom capacity in September due to COVID-19. Organizations like Green Schoolyards America are exploring how a school might place the remaining students in the environment outside, either at parks or at school grounds, in order to potentially serve 100 percent of enrolled students. But what a learning curve, and what a lot of daunting preparations! As the summer progresses, resources and curriculum-specific lesson plans are starting to emerge online to support schools as they consider adding an outdoor component to reopening in the fall. 

Even if efforts to move school into the schoolyard is far from perfect at first, school communities may find that they don’t have a choice but to try. And they may find that the benefits will long outlive the pandemic. For example, teachers repeatedly report that students who are typically bored and tuned-out inside start participating, even leading, in the learning activities outside. They report that having class outside is good, even urgent, in the face of not only contagion, but also passivity, anxiety, physical illiteracy, nearsightedness, restlessness and rootlessness.

The school grounds don’t have to be a forest or field either. Some shrubs, soil and insects can go a long way towards inspiration. Have you ever had a child bring you a field bouquet or a woolly bear caterpillar? How wide were their eyes? That’s the kind of wonder that makes any of us more teachable. May kids have eyes to see, and opportunity, to learn that This is our Father’s world.

  • Carina has been an elementary school teacher in Ontario, and now substitute teaches in Kent County, Michigan. She blogs about outdoor education.

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