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Moving the Classroom Outdoors

As young people spend more hours of the day with electronic screens, some educators are concerned about a growing disconnect with nature. In response, some teachers are expanding environmental education and moving the classroom outdoors. Catherine Komp has more for Virginia Currents.


Holman Middle School teacher Beth Lewis grew up exploring the woods behind her house, catching bugs in a net and pulling crayfish out of the creek. Entire days were spent outside, where physical activity merged with discoveries in nature. Those memories came back when she read an article by Richard Louv, who wrote the book Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children from Nature-Deficit Disorder. For Lewis, it was a call to action.

Beth Lewis: I wanted to do something different in the way I taught science. I wanted to get kids outside and get them exploring the way that I used to when I was little.

Lewis started with an assignment she called Get Green Time. After school, go outside and write some observations in a journal. For the first couple months, students did this for 15 minutes. By the end of the year, it turned into Green Hour.

Lewis: Now at the beginning, they were a little antsy, they were quite sure what to do. But they learned throughout the course of the year how what we were learning, whether it's photosynthesis or why the seasons are changing and the leaves are dropping or why do earthworms come out when it rains a lot, there's a lot of application and we were able to then tackle it in class and discuss it but unless they have the context to go see it for themselves and come in and then ask those great scientific questions, why are these things happening, then that became a wonderful starting point for my lessons.

Studies on outdoor education and play indicate multiple benefits, including increased physical and mental health. There are behavioral and intellectual gains too, from problem-solving and critical thinking skills to developing confidence and independence.

Stephen Schwartz: Does everyone have their pencils and their databooks?

At Patrick Henry School of Science and Arts, outdoor education takes place throughout the year. Forest Hill Park is in the school’s backyard and many teachers make use of it. On Fridays, environmental studies teacher Stephen Schwartz takes students down to the Reedy Creek. Clipboards in hand, students navigate a familiar trail.

Schwartz: Alright, nitrates...

Their task today is testing the creek’s water quality. In teams of two, they open ziplock bags containing materials to test nitrates, phosphates, oxygen and coliform bacteria. First, they read procedures.

Student: One, fill the test tube to the 10 milliliter line with the water sample...

Twice a year, Schwartz and his students conduct these tests to evaluate the health of the Creek.

Schwartz: We’re going to go over the results. I’m going to tell you so far what we have collected and whether it is good for our creek environment or poor for our creek environment...

The PH results are looking pretty good

Schwartz: Our snails, our freshwater clams, can grow well if they are living in our creek. What about our nitrates?

Nitrate levels are in between fair and good.

Schwartz: The reason why is we have a lot of runoff. I was actually expecting it to be a little higher, because right now is planting season, people are fertilizing their lawns...

Meredith Crider: It’s fun to help the environment.

Third graders Meredith Crider and Joy Mouzone-Benton say they come to the park after school too.

Meredith Crider: I like to test things that are in the water and I try to help the animals and plants.
Joy Mouzone-Benton: I’ve learned so far in third grade, keeping the river clean and recycling things like plastic and paper and tin cans.

Trash expeditions are another favorite outdoor activity. Students have come to love this park and want to contribute to its health.

Schwartz: There’s so much trash, we’ve collected about 250 pounds of trash in just three visits. Our school- I think there's a sign out there now that says “Every day is Earth Day” because we need to know the importance of our impact on the environment and how we can, just as our little school, try to change it.

Virginia schools were encouraged to create more outdoor experiences and sustainability projects by Governor Terry McAuliffe’s “environmental literacy challenge” issued in 2015. The Chesapeake Bay Foundation has long offered environmental education opportunities and they launched a “No Child Left Inside” coalition. The Foundation’s Bill Portlock takes teachers and students throughout the Bay to do field investigations.

Bill Portlock: They’re in boats, they’re on islands, they’re learning from exploring and often they’re in habitats they’re not familiar with. But they are more engaged and it is also a way that they can learn from each other, there’s communication skills involved, there’s problem-solving, creative thinking, a lot of things that really are advantages to students. And also in the career readiness mode, they gain skills in things our society needs.

Time and money are some impediments to expanding outdoor education. Some schools have found that partnering with community groups allows them to experiment with new environmental ed programs. Some are building learning gardens, which can be a cost-effective way to teach and feed students.

Schwartz: This is our victory garden...

At Patrick Henry, each grade has their own plot. There’s an herb spiral, an orchard, and plenty of raised beds for fruits and vegetables.

Schwartz: [The strawberries] are delicious. We have to fight the kids off from coming over and demolishing them. We practice sustainability and take in whatever we grow into the cafeteria. This is our history bayscape garden, this was just planted...

Even with a small budget, educators like Beth Lewis says teachers can find ways to connect their students with the outdoors. While she’s facilitated more intensive projects to clean up the Bay, Lewis also does simple things, like exploring the school grounds. A bird feeder on a classroom window, says Lewis, creates an opportunity to observe different species and migration patterns.

Lewis: Kids care, they want to feel like they can make a difference, they get passionate. Middle school especially is the time when kids start forming their own opinions, they can sometimes think their opinion is the only opinion, but they can have a lot of influence that way, if they can get excited about something. But it’s getting teachers to find that connection point.

Instilling a love for nature in students, says Lewis, might lead to the next generation of leaders solving environmental problems. For Virginia Currents, I’m Catherine Komp, WCVE News.