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The following excerpt comes from Moving the Classroom Outdoors: Schoolyard-Enhanced Learning in Action, by Herbert W. Broda (Stenhouse Publishers, 2011). The book retails for around $23 and is available on the Stenhouse Web site.
Interest in the outdoors can frequently be effectively nurtured indoors. Sally Massengale is an educator at Glenwood Elementary in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. Although Sally shared many wonderful outdoor teaching activities with me, I was especially impressed with how hard she worked to build an interest in exploration of the school grounds by creatively displaying outdoor discoveries indoors.
Sally has a simple yet highly interactive way to remind children that there is a rich natural environment that exists just beyond the schoolhouse door. To encourage children to observe their surroundings more carefully, Sally has put up a simple diagram of the school grounds right outside the cafeteria door, probably one of the busiest stretches of hallway in the building. As students find interesting natural specimens of plants or animals, Sally helps them sketch what they saw on an index card and identify what it was. The card is then placed beside the diagram of the school grounds, with a piece of yarn linking the natural item to its location on the diagram. The result is a frequently changing update of what has been discovered on the site. The location of the diagram in a busy area of the building ensures that that many students will pause and take a look.
In this same area outside of the cafeteria, Sally has set up a simple weather monitoring display. Kids keep track of simple data, like humidity, rainfall, temperature, cloud cover, and so on.
Weather can provide a tremendous amount of data. The cost of weather monitoring equipment has dropped to a point where schools can afford to set up small weather stations linked to classroom computers. Some schools have a weather station on the school roof connected to a PC in a science classroom. The weather station collects data about wind speed and direction, temperature and relative humidity, rainfall, light intensity, barometric pressure, and indoor temperature. This rich accumulation of longitudinal data can provide abundant fodder for all types of analyses and comparisons. The weather observations can even be displayed in real time on a school Web page.
Public art in school hallways can do much to create both awareness and curiosity about the outdoors. Park Forest Elementary in State College, Pennsylvania, uses three-dimensional murals that are created by placing individual pieces of student work into the creation. Soon after the building opened, one stairwell was designated as the site for a tree whose branches hold ceramic leaves and tiles created by students in the building.
The stairwell tree was so successful that another mural was designed using the same concept of integrating individual student artwork. This second mural covers over 10 feet of wall space and, like the first mural, engaged more than forty students from grades three, four, and five to create elements to include in the composition. Public art on this scale inside the building sends a constant message that nature is an important theme at Park Forest.
Children’s artwork can do so much to brighten up drab places, including fences. Outdoor weaving frames are also becoming increasingly popular on school sites. The idea is very simple. Just set up a frame with strings to form the warp. Students then can weave strips of material, vines, leaves, small branches—whatever they find interesting—into the design.
At Brookside Elementary School in Columbus, Ohio, the school is using the outdoors as a springboard for teaching in a variety of content areas. Decorating one of the hallways at Brookside is some unique student artwork that uses nature in a social studies lesson about prehistoric civilizations. Sixth-grade students went outside and found small sticks that were sturdy enough to work as brush handles. They then took small bunches of pine needles and fastened them to the sticks with string. To create ambience, teachers had the students take their natural brushes into the gym and turn out the lights. By the glow of flashlights (much safer than candles!) students used paint and the pine brushes to create “cave art” on large sheets of brown paper.
Think of the outdoors as an instructional toolbox. In any climate, during any season, and in all content areas, nature provides multiple venues and options for enhancing, enriching, and adding a much-needed change of pace and place to the instructional routine. Like a toolbox, the outdoors is readily accessible—just open the classroom door and step outside!
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