Outdoor classrooms gaining appeal amid budget cuts

Somers Intermediate School principal John Griffiths poses for

Somers Intermediate School principal John Griffiths poses for a portrait at the outdoor classroom location, which is approximately a half-mile walk from the building. (Sept. 27, 2012) (Credit: Faye Murman)

As budget-challenged schools try to make the most of resources on hand, some are forsaking field trips in favor of outdoor classrooms that offer a window on nature at a price that can't be beat.

"Our school grounds are graced with a nice, wooded hillside, and on that wooded hillside ... we have had about a mile of nature trails that have been put in," said John Griffiths, principal at Somers Middle School. "Throughout, we have different learning spots, and at the top of the hill we have an entire outdoor classroom."

Somer's outdoor classroom consists of a number of benches set in front of a teaching station, complete with an old-fashioned chalkboard. The space is used by teachers throughout the school for science and nature studies, language arts, creative writing classes and lessons on Native American cultures.


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"We always say that the best learning is experiential," Griffiths said. "When you're in your natural word, studying your natural world, you're getting a lot more than you can get out of a textbook."

The movement to get kids outside is nothing new. But it has picked up steam as budget cuts have made field trips look expensive.

"My perception, and the perception of others that do outdoor education, is that there are fewer field trips going on," said Cornelia Harris, ecology program leader at the Cary Institute of Ecosystem Studies in Millbrook.

Harris endorses "using the schoolyard to do outdoor investigations."

Griffiths agreed.

"Because of the costs surrounding busing, we can't do as much as we'd like to," he said. "So certainly having our own field trip destination on our school grounds is valuable."

Tracy Brown, water quality advocate for the environmental group Riverkeeper and the parent of two children in Tarrytown public schools, is leading an initiative to create an outdoor classroom on a 37-acre preserve owned by the district.

"This property ... is a great way to bring some of that variety back into the school year for the children," she said of her project.

Brown's proposal outlines a wide range of potential uses for the outdoor classroom, from science and environmental study to lessons in art, history, mathematics and language arts as well as athletics and community service.

Patricia Lynch, a first-grade teacher and elementary science coordinator at Carrie E. Tompkins Elementary School in Croton-on-Hudson, worked with staff members at Teatown Lake Reservation to create a nature trail in the woods behind her school. They identified 14 different teaching points on the trail, now used by Lynch and fellow teachers.

The teaching points include unique outcroppings of stone, rotting logs, vines overtaking trees, wildflowers and different fungi growing out the trees. Students break apart seed pods for one lesson and examine the root systems of plants and weeds for another.

"It opens up a whole new realm of learning for them, outdoor learning, and it makes things real," Lynch said. "If you don't do that, they won't see the intricacies in the natural world around them. They won't even stop to think about it."

Susan Hereth, education coordinator at Scenic Hudson, said outdoor teaching is the key to any real understanding of natural systems.

"How can you study ecosystems when you're not actually looking at them?" Hereth said. "How do you fully understand the concept? We'll teach concepts in the classroom, then we'll take kids outside to experience it in a tangible way."

Harris suggested that the study of natural systems in the backyard is more effective than traveling.

"One of the things that we really try to do is help people see every place as an ecosystem," Harris said. "You don't have to go into the woods for two hours or take a dramatic hike in some undisturbed wilderness because really every place is an ecosystem that has interactions that kids can study."

Christina Connors, who teaches family and consumer science at Lakeland Copper Beach Middle School in Yorktown Heights, said students enjoy learning in the outdoors.

"I get to see some kids who are normally not excited about being in school be excited about being in school," Connors said. "They're tasting something for the first time or they get to see how something is growing because they've never seen food growing before."

For Lynch, outdoor teaching seems like common sense.

"So much of what we do in the classroom is paper and pencil and this is hands-on," she said. "Kids need to do science, not just learn about science. They need to be a scientist."

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