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Classrooms: Area educators embrace the outdoors

  • Hatfield Elementary School kindergartners walk toward their outdoor classroom Oct. 10 on property behind the school. GAZETTE STAFF/SARAH CROSBY

  • Hatfield Elementary School kindergartner Jack Charette, center, wades through a creek with friends Oct. 10 while learning in the outdoor classroom behind the school. GAZETTE STAFF/SARAH CROSBY

  • Hatfield Elementary School kindergartner Connor McCoy pulls himself up on a branch Oct. 10 while learning in the outdoor classroom located behind the school. GAZETTE STAFF/SARAH CROSBY

  • Hatfield Elementary School kindergartners walk toward their outdoor classroom Oct. 10 on property behind the school. GAZETTE STAFF/SARAH CROSBY PHOTOS

  • Hatfield Elementary School kindergartner Emilia Barszcz, center, paints a leaf to create an imprint with the help of teacher Christa Andersen, at left, Oct. 10, while learning in the outdoor classroom located behind the school. GAZETTE STAFF/SARAH CROSBY

  • Hatfield Elementary School kindergartner Ellie Bielunis perches on a tree branch Oct. 10 while learning in the outdoor classroom behind the school. More and more educators are taking their students outdoors, where resources abound. GAZETTE STAFF/SARAH CROSBY

  • Hatfield Elementary School kindergartner Jack Charette wades through a creek Oct. 10, while learning in the outdoor classroom located behind the school. GAZETTE STAFF/SARAH CROSBY

  • Hatfield Elementary School kindergartner Connor McCoy, left, paints a leaf to create an imprint with the help of teacher Christa Andersen Oct. 10, while learning in the outdoor classroom behind the school. GAZETTE STAFF/SARAH CROSBY



@dustyc123
Wednesday, October 18, 2017

HATFIELD — A sense of unbridled joy filled the warm fall air last Tuesday as kindergarteners here lined up at the edge of the orange-and-red-speckled woods.

“Fox, chipmunk, BEAR!” their teacher, Christa Andersen, yelled — a signal for the students to run into the forest, screaming in delight. They laid sticks down to fortify a bridge they had built over the nearby creek, and realized that recent rains meant the creek’s water was more likely to get into their boots.

“Onto the polar express!” one boy yelled, signalling for his classmates to hop on board the tree he had made into his imaginary train. “I found a snake’s hole!” another shouted.

The children’s adventures were part of Hatfield Elementary School’s outdoor classroom, one of several similar learning opportunities blossoming at local public schools. In addition to Hatfield’s program, there are also new outdoor classroom initiatives in places like R.H. Conwell Elementary School in Worthington and R.K. Finn Ryan Road School in Florence.

Outdoor classrooms, it seems, are becoming more common across the country. Theresa Embry, a consultant at the California-based Outdoor Classroom Project — an initiative advocating for similar programs — says the concept has expanded on the west coast. Here in New England, local proponents of this type of learning say the idea of teaching kids outdoors is catching on here too.

“I think it’s always good to get children outdoors, no matter how that happens,” said Kate Tooke, a Boston-based landscape architect, former secondary school teacher and expert on outdoor spaces for children. Tooke said there’s “absolutely” a growing realization in the region that outdoor education is beneficial to children.

Part of the reason for the trend, she said, is a pushback against high-stakes testing and its attendant pedagogy.

“There’s a little bit of a backlash against that now, and a resurgence of an understanding that children need to learn in lots of different ways,” she said. 

Outdoor classrooms, those interviewed for this story said, provide a chance for students with different learning styles to engage with material in a way they wouldn’t be able to in an indoor classroom. 

“It’s an opportunity to see kids who might struggle in some areas of an academic kindergarten really become leaders and ignite the learning and passion of other kids outside,” Andersen said. “It’s an opportunity for kids to really shine in ways that really just can’t happen inside.” 

“You have kids that really struggle at the desk setting, who struggle in a classroom, who suddenly are able to go out and move their bodies and be vocal. And suddenly they see that learning isn’t just for that kid who’s good at taking a test,” said Kimberly Orzechowski, a second- and third-grade teacher at R.H. Conwell Elementary in Worthington, who teaches in that school’s new outdoor classroom.

Orzechowski said she originally started working in outdoor classrooms when she taught at Hawlemont Regional Elementary School in Charlemont. She brought that experience to Worthington, and said she sees the outdoor classroom model as a growing trend.

“I think people are realizing they have this amazing resource — especially in this area — and they’re starting to take advantage of this wonderful resource,” Orzechowski said. “And you can integrate your whole curriculum.”

As several examples of how many subjects can be taught in an outdoor classroom, Orzechowski said her students take measurements out in the woods as part of science lessons, or sit under a tree with a book for reading lessons.

“It’s a really cool way to get kids really connected with their own learning,” Orzechowski said. 

At R.H. Conwell Elementary, students from all age groups take part in outdoor lessons, as is also the case at R.K. Finn Ryan Road Elementary School in Florence, where an outdoor classroom was just finished in time for this school year. 

“Everybody loves it!” Principal Sarah Madden said, describing how students use the space during class time, as well as during recess, and parents socialize in the space after school. “It’s used all day long in some capacity.”

In addition to those activities, the outdoor classroom at R.K. Finn is located right next to the school’s garden, where children have been learning together with the program School Sprouts Educational Gardens. That work has expanded with the creation of the outdoor classroom, as has a partnership with the Hitchcock Center for the Environment.

Many of those who work in outdoor classrooms talk about how important it is to have many activities in those spaces, blurring the lines between fun and learning.

“We view the playspace not just a place to let off steam, but a place of learning where kids can take risks and understand what their limits are,” Tooke said. “Where they learn cooperation.”

Patti Benson, one of the preschool teachers who helped Andersen start Hatfield’s outdoor-classroom project, gave the example of considering an experience like climbing a tree as an experiment in sharing, taking turns and empathy.

“When we’re out there, there’s a lot less arguing,” she added, talking about how her students took pride in the places they created outside that stayed around through the seasons, like their stick bridge across the creek. 

“Do we come back for wet feet?” asked Andersen last week before her class headed outside.

“No!” the children answered back in unison.

“That’s a natural consequence,” Andersen said.

There were plenty of wet feet to go around, but no complaining and no coming back inside on that clear day. (Classes go out year round at Hatfield Elementary, rain, snow or shine. 

On this particular day the stick bridge was in full use, and Andersen’s students helped one another climb up the muddy bank in an impressive show of teamwork.

Tucked into all those fun learning experiences were little science lessons that had clearly stuck with the students since their last time outdoors.

“What happens when the chlorophyll goes bye-bye?” Andersen asked the young class during a class conversation about why the leaves turn different colors in the fall. 

“They fall down!” the class answered.

Dusty Christensen can be reached at dchristensen@gazettenet.com.