Taking students into the real world, the living world, to study and learn has immense benefits . (Photo: Flagstaff Academy).

8th grade students at Friends School visit Moab. (Photo: Friends School).

Pandemic or not, schools see the benefits of outdoor education

While outdoor education has always played a leading role at Bixby School, Friends School and Flagstaff Academy, all located in Boulder County, after a pandemic year of learning outside by necessity, these schools are more committed than ever to immersing students in studies far beyond the four walls of a classroom.

Friends School director of admissions Melanie Leggett explained, “We’ve always prioritized outdoor education, but now we’ve seen just how much we can do outside. Our kids were perfectly happy to be outside all day.”

Leggett isn’t exaggerating. Students at Bixby School and Friends School studied, ate and played outdoors from the start to end of most 2020 to 2021 school days, as the schools shifted education outdoors “98 percent of the time,” said Leggett, to keep classes in-person. Bixby head of school Nina Lopez said, “We learned, students and teachers, that we’re adaptable and can do hard things. We bought tents, built platforms, put down rugs and brought out chairs.” Teachers rewrote curricula to take advantage of the outdoor environment – such as an ornithology unit for first graders and for fifth graders, learning math by designing raised garden beds – and reminded students to dress for the weather and pack hearty snacks. “We added more periods of rest into our day since it can be tiring to be outside, and over and over again, we saw the benefits of outdoor education,” Leggett said.

At Flagstaff Academy, a public charter school in the St. Vrain Valley School District, students returned from remote learning as soon as was safely feasible, and the outdoor education celebrated at the school from its first days attained new urgency. “Even with masks and social distancing, when students were able to get their hands dirty and plant seeds, that was connective and healing,” said Lisa Trank-Greene, communications coordinator at Flagstaff Academy. “There was a specialness to the outdoor space.”

Flagstaff’s natural classroom includes a geodesic dome greenhouse featuring an aquaponic system for growing plants. As at Friends School and Bixby, Flagstaff students tend and harvest organic vegetables and seed pollinator-friendly plants and native grasses. Trank-Greene said, “It’s one thing to be in a science lab and another to be able to be out finding birds or looking at microorganisms in streams. We’re taking our students into the real world, the living world, to study and learn.”

Going forward, Bixby School, Friends School and Flagstaff Academy intend to keep the focus on outdoor learning in high gear. Bixby has prioritized building bat boxes and beehives, and Friends School is moving physical education classes permanently outdoors. “We live in Colorado with so many days of sun, so why not?” Leggett said. “Our parents and kids loved outdoor PE.”

Students at Friends School study nature from the boardwalk. (Photo: Friends School).

Indeed, for Bixby, Friends and Flagstaff, last year’s forced dependency on outside classrooms reemphasized the worth of a vibrant outdoor education program. “We already loved recess and field trips,” Leggett said. “Now we saw the value of even more time outdoors. We saw the physical benefits of our kids feeling reenergized and more self-regulated outdoors and having greater focus, and it’s safe to say we’ll be outdoors next year even more than we used to be.”

Flagstaff’s natural classroom includes a geodesic dome greenhouse. (Photo: Flagstaff Academy).

Lopez noted, “This was a reminder that learning doesn’t just happen in our brain but is a whole-body experience. Being outdoors opened up new ways for our kids to see the relevance of what we’re learning and more importantly, to direct their learning and to spark their curiosity. We know that kids learn better when they’re moving and outside.”

Lopez added that as Bixby has reflected on the past year and how the pandemic has exacerbated inequities, they’re hoping to welcome more students to Bixby-style outdoor education with a significant increase in tuition support.

What remains the same for Bixby School, Friends School and Flagstaff Academy is their longstanding commitment to the wonders of outdoor education. “We believe that if kids experience the outdoors, they will learn to love the outdoors and go on to take care of it,” Leggett said. “We are building the next generation of environmental stewards.”

Trank-Greene concurred: “We believe we are helping to create tomorrow’s ethical leaders of the world, and part of being an ethical leader means not only aiming for my own success but to succeed in relationship with our interconnected world. We are responsible for this planet that is our home, and it’s important to us that our students learn this from an early age.”

Outdoor class circle. (Photo: Friends School).

By Sarah Huber for Raised in the Rockies