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WATCH NOW: Area schools take to the outdoors, for learning opportunities and student wellbeing

Anne Heuschen, a second-grader at Mountain View Elementary, has enjoyed the time she’s spent outside the courtyard near her classroom this school year.

“Because it’s so nice and you feel more alive,” she said of the perks.

Friends Cassidy Nader and Raegan Brown agreed. Raegan said she likes to discover new things, and Cassidy said she likes being able to explore nature.

Their teachers, Ross Schiller and Carrie Oertel, have built in more time in the courtyard this school year to give students breaks and teach them about nature. The pandemic also was a driving factor as the virus doesn’t spread as easily outside.

“With this year, COVID and virtual learning, I want to get out of the classroom and into nature as much as possible,” Schiller said.

Schiller worked with the Albemarle County school’s parent-teacher organization to purchase supplies, such as mulch, and students have helped to clean up the courtyard.

Other schools also are working with parents to create or spruce up outdoor classroom spaces as in-person learning opened up to more students this spring and the weather improved. Teachers took advantage of the outdoors to give students more opportunities to get their hands dirty, have fun with their peers and see how concepts learned in the classroom play out in the real world.

At Charlottesville’s Walker Upper Elementary School, students have spent most afternoons outside playing team-building games or working on projects since in-person classes resumed in early March. Electives, physical education classes and intervention sessions take place during the afternoons, as well.

“The greatest thing that’s happening this year is that kids are with other kids and loving the time,” Principal Adam Hastings said.

At Mountain View, the second-graders befriended turtles that call the courtyard home, naming them Apple, Grape and Strawberry. They’ve also had the chance to observe robin eggs, which recently hatched.

On a tour of the courtyard, Elsie Baxter, Yahani Munoz and Alexandre Declet said they take breaks and eat lunch in the space, which is accessible via their classrooms. They like being able to run around, which they aren’t allowed to do inside, and hope next school year has just as much outside time.

Schiller said he wanted to instill an appreciation of nature in students. He filled different soil types in plastic water bottles so students could observe the process of erosion.

“I wanted to show them, and in the best possible classroom, what a habitat is,” he said. “I wanted to show them how things grow, to show them the effects of erosion, which is what these bottles are. And I can show it on a screen, but coming out here and showing them, it’s just been better.”

The second grade class at Mountain View hasn’t been the only one heading outside this spring. The kindergarten team took a celebration of the alphabet outside for a lesson with the school’s PE teacher, Sue Zeanah.

“Especially with mental health this year, the outdoors brings a different element than you can ever get inside,” she said.

Zeanah was tasked with celebrating the letter E and led the kindergarten class through eight exercises on a stretch of blacktop just outside the building. With Stage Four of the county’s reopening plan, PE classes have moved online and Zeanah is teaching third grade.

“It’s normal to feel exhausted,” she said, standing uphill from the students.

She mixed an assortment of E words, from energy to emotions to extraordinary, into the lesson along with a bit of math. At the end, she had students make an E with their legs, arms and bodies and snapped a selfie.

Zeanah said she was happy to help out.

“I just tried to make it a way to bring back what they were taught earlier this year with me, and also obviously celebrate that letter E with them, too,” she said. “It’s just a joy to see them moving and see their faces, even with a mask on.”

Johnson Elementary

At Johnson Elementary, a team of parent volunteers led by Rick Harden, the school’s garden coordinator, worked over the course of six weeks to create a network of trails and classroom spaces in the woods near the Charlottesville school.

“When you go into this wide-open classroom space, and your teacher says, ‘go play,’ that totally stimulates your creativity,” Principal Summerlyn Thompson said. “It potentially engages you in activities that you might not have ever thought of because it’s like this wide-open canvas.”

Use of the trails and outdoor classrooms just kind of popped up this year, so Thompson said for next school year, the Johnson team can do more intentional planning about how to use the space.

So far, having a dedicated space outside has made it easier for classes to take advantage of it, she said. Teachers have used the space to let children play or for quiet writing activities.

“This is a space where you can do the same kinds of teaching that you would do in your classroom, except it’s outside,” Thompson said.

Walker Upper Elementary

Hastingssaid the afternoon arrangement at Walker was the brainchild of Chris Chamberlin, the school’s iStem teacher, who urged the leadership team to take advantage of this school year and try something different.

“Now we heard very loudly from families that they wanted us outside as much time as possible,” Hastingssaid.

Chamberlin and other teachers at the school worked together to figure out how to make the afternoon more than a three-hour recess. The result was creating 13 outdoor classrooms throughout the campus, extending all the way to Greenleaf Park and adjacent trails. PTO funds helped to outfit the classrooms with supplies and stools.

Throughout the week, the teams rotate through the spaces, giving students a change of scenery and different experiences. The outdoor activities are fun and based on team building, Hastings said.

“We really have had to sort of relearn how to be classmates and colleagues and learn to live together,” he said.

Hastings added that he thought the school would have challenges with student participation and some not having appropriate outdoor clothing.

“The kids have really risen to the occasion and families have risen to the occasion,” he said.

More typical instruction takes place in the mornings, and Hastings said they noticed a “strong uptick” in student engagement during those classes.

Hastings said classes have tackled academic projects, as well, during the afternoons, such as making rockets and solar ovens.

“The academic stuff that we’re doing in the afternoons is really awesome,” he said. “I really will say though that I think where we’re getting our most bang for the buck is the social-emotional learning. It’s about how we are coming together as a class and as a community and getting to know one another.”

Looking ahead to next school year, Hastings hopes the outdoor time can continue; however, he’s worried about the logistics of having more students in the building and fulfilling state requirements for instructional time.

“I would love, at a minimum, to incorporate the lessons that we’ve learned and be able to,” he said. “If we can’t do it for half a day, at least do it for some significant chunk of the day. … My fear is just returning to normal in the fall, and it would just be so hard after having a taste of something different.”


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