At James Faulkner Elementary School in Stoddard, fourth and fifth graders started the year in an unusual way – they built their own classroom.
In the first three weeks of class, with permission from the city, the group of about 15 students, led by Professor Amanda Bridges, removed leaves, stones and branches from a small piece of forest near the school building. The end result is an open-air classroom with waterproof tarpaulin, fire pit, stone seats, portable blackboard and hammocks strung between trees.
“They were so creative, using their imaginations in such interesting ways, especially when they were building a camp, and it was much more creative and hard today,” said Bridges. “They were creating a natural playground.”
Due to COVID-19, students at James Faulkner Elementary are either in person or remote this year, so class sizes are reduced. The idea of building an outdoor classroom that could be used during the winter came up with Professor Amanda Bridges after she was given her teaching assignment, which was to teach in person five days a week.
“Being outdoors was the healthiest and safest place to be,” said Bridges. “If I have to be there, I will be out with my children as much as is humanly possible.”
Many New Hampshire schools have experimented – to varying degrees – with teaching outdoors this year, as increased airflow offers an extra level of protection from COVID-19. Teachers say that not only does it help everyone feel safer, it also allows them to experience an alternative model of education, outside the traditional four-wall classroom.
From the beginning, Bridges saw the creation of the classroom as an opportunity for a team building, creativity, communication and exercise class. The children traced their designs to the appearance of the classroom. They received a lesson on how to use a hand saw and took turns cutting cuttings and moving them aside, with the help of facility manager Mike Sheehan, who was a former arborist.
“You give children an ounce of responsibility, and usually they’ll just accept it,” said Bridges. “I taught them ‘it’s a tool, not a toy’. The children were very proud and very excited. ”
After class, students spend an average of four and a half hours a day outdoors for all classes, snacks and lunch breaks. Children are equipped with a raincoat, but if the weather is really dangerous – a storm, for example – they would enter. Otherwise, the only time they spend in the school building is at the beginning and end of the day, with an internal break in the middle for warming up and hand washing. In addition, classes that require computer technology should take place indoors.
Bridges says he plans to keep children learning in the classroom outdoors during the winter, with the help of a city-approved fire and lots of warm clothing.
“The deputy fireman came and inspected the fire that the children had designed and they obtained the license,” said Bridges. “We will soon have our first commemorative bonfire.”
Bridges’ classroom is one of two outdoor classrooms used at James Faulkner Elementary School this fall. Professor Jacquelyn Cornwell, who teaches a small combined class of 12 second, third and fourth year students, actually started her class before the pandemic, as part of her after-school skills club in the jungle (Cornwell was an outdoor educator free before becoming a public school teacher). But the classroom was used mainly for specific activities, such as a science class or a writing activity.
“I created the space to allow students a learning experience in building outdoor shelters, lighting a fire and exploring nature in a respectful way,” said Cornwell. “With the advent of COVID-19, I decided to increase its use. We are now out 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 canvas stretched with trees and desks made of wooden planks balanced on tree stumps. Students sit two meters away on wooden benches, yoga mats or upside-down buckets.
Cornwell says she will reduce the amount of time her class is out this winter at Stoddard, as she teaches younger children who may not be as cold-resistant. But they will still be gone for a few hours a day.
“I’m going to work on a type of outdoor movement, but it may not be possible to write, read, subjects that you really have to stand still just because your bodies can’t stand the cold,” said Cornwell.
She said the hardest part is having to plan ahead and making sure everyone brings the materials they need for the day.
“I say, ‘take your nature diary and your pencil’, but when they get to their place, someone dropped the pencil,” said Cornwell. “I have extra food, forks, straws, napkins. I have extra pencils, tape if someone rips the paper. “
Outdoor classrooms were adopted – albeit to a lesser extent – by other public schools this fall, many of which rented party stalls to teach in good weather.
The Concord School District’s maintenance department rented tents to all schools. At Broken Ground School, a group of new American ELL students attended in person when most of the district was remote in September, and took outdoor classes every day under the tents. Now that the school is in a hybrid model with classes of eight to 11 students, the school’s four tents are used for lunch, so students can take off their masks to eat. A class holds its morning meetings outside and some classes have students outside with their Chromebooks for learning activities as well.
“It’s nice to just have the kids outside and change rhythm,” said Susan Lauze, director of Broken Ground School. “They can take a mask outside, which is good.”
Broken Ground School classes are currently closed when it is raining. Lauze said he is still deciding how many students will be outdoors as the weather gets colder.
“We are trying to work with families to send an extra layer – jackets and everything – so that they can feel comfortable leaving home,” said Lauze. “We will continue to go out as much as we can and use the outdoor spaces because there is a lot to learn in these outdoor areas.”
Loudon Elementary School, Deerfield Community School, Dublin School, Acton Academy New Hampshire and Contoocook Valley School District are some of the other schools that have offered outdoor classes this year.
Some schools that already adopt a nature-based education philosophy, such as High Mowing School in Wilton and Mountain Village Charter School in Plymouth, are taking the same approach as James Faulkner Elementary and spending most of the day outdoors, setting up outside shelters so that they can stay outside even in inclement weather.
Cornwell said that in the past she talked to educators who say they would not like to teach outside, for fear that their students would be distracted and not pay attention. But this year, Cornwell realized the opposite. On a rainy day, she was forced to bring her class inside after the rain sheet was torn by the wind. Cornwell said the difference in his students’ behavior, once everyone was inside, was noticeable.
“Their focus was out, their foolishness was on the rise,” said Cornwell. “I was like, ‘wow’. This is the first time with this group when I saw that they are much more calm and available to learn outside than inside the house all day. ”
Bridges said one of his favorite things about the classroom in the forest is to have each student set up a hammock to be their own personal space that no one else can touch. Students use the hammocks for quiet and peaceful moments, to remove their masks and to do the tasks away from the entire group.
“My hope for these students is what they remember is, ‘that was the year we studied abroad’ and not ‘that was the year of COVID-19’,” said Bridges.