A View from the Hill: Go outside and learn

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A friend of mine hosted a 7-year-old guest for a few days recently. It’s not always easy to entertain a 7-year-old boy, so she took him to the public garden where she has a plot. To her surprise, he was enthralled. 

It turns out he’d never thought about where food comes from. He couldn’t believe that all that stuff could grow from little seeds. In the few days he was here he visited the garden at least nine times. It was, as they say, an education.

The public garden is next to the East End Community School Garden on North Street in Portland. As the Portland Public Schools reopen for the first time during the pandemic, the children’s garden has been designated, along with other sites around the city, as an official outdoor classroom.

That education is going outdoors is not really new.

During the Spanish flu of 1918, classes were moved outside to the decks of New York Harbor ferries and other open-air sites. And the children’s garden in Portland has hosted kids for years on a circle of benches. Those sessions focused on the garden, and they will continue to do so, but not exclusively.

Classes there and outside throughout the city and across the country won’t be limited to gardening. Educators have found that many other disciplines lend themselves to outdoor learning, where they are enhanced by fresh air, blue sky, and the endlessly interesting sights and sounds of nature.

And these days, those outside classrooms are far safer than being indoors, surrounded by the constant reminders of our COVID-19 world.

“A lot of districts are looking into it,” Olivia Griset of the Maine Environmental Education Association told the Bangor Daily News. “And one silver lining is that there’s a lot of research that shows that outdoor learning is good for kids anyway – good for their physical and mental health. … If schools are able to build an outdoor learning space and procure some of the gear to make it possible now, they can continue to use it well beyond COVID.”

With just a little innovation, art can go outside. And writing. And reading. Math can go outside. So can science. And music. And history.

“It seems like such a challenge, but it’s actually doable,” Griset said. And Portland is doing it.

For years private organizations, like the Maine Outdoor School in Milbridge or TimberNook in Portland or White Pine Programs in York, have been offering outdoor classes, with a focus on experiential learning. But those are tuition-based programs with limited enrollment.

Kate Ehrenfeld Gardoqui, a founder of White Pine and now a senior associate with the Great Schools Partnership, challenges public education to take it outdoors in a big, inclusive way.

“I was fighting for equity by pushing my students to read sophisticated texts, write clearly and powerfully, and synthesize information,” Gardoqui wrote recently in Education Week. “By incorporating nature into our learning, we were not neglecting rigor in favor of fun.”

“But,” she continued, “this is what I remember most: When we walked through the dim school hallway and out the door, there was a feeling of lightness that would sweep through the class as blue sky unfurled above us. There was joy as we walked out onto the grass – and that joy was a form of equity as well.”

When I taught journalism at the University of New Hampshire, even my college-age students always appreciated an outdoor class, during which we would practice interviewing, photography, videography, and just plain observation. When we returned to the classroom, they were invariably energized.

Studies, such as one at the University of Colorado, have shown benefits of outdoor education that go beyond academics. 

“Playing in schoolyards that feature natural habitats and trees and not just asphalt and recreation equipment reduces children’s stress and inattention,” the research found.

As challenging as these times are, they also offer big, exciting opportunities for innovation. Schools in Portland and several Maine cities and towns are embracing that challenge. Good for them.

Andrew Marsters is an award-winning journalist and former journalism instructor at the University of New Hampshire. He lives on Munjoy Hill.