Outdoor education sparks healthy, well-rounded learning

Published on: 
28 Aug 2017
Steph MacPhail

Many of us know that spending time outside is one of the best ways to reduce stress. In fact, it’s backed by science—studies have shown that being outdoors not only makes us feel healthier, it also helps our brains function better.

It’s a lesson that we need to take to heart in the classroom. As a teacher, I’m a big supporter of technology and the role it plays in preparing children for their future careers. But I’m also a firm believer that we need to balance the emphasis on technology with an appreciation for the educational power of the outdoors and sustainability.

For more than two years, students, faculty and volunteers throughout the community have worked to build an outdoor classroom at Washburn Elementary School in Bloomington, Minnesota, where I teach. It’s been a passion project for us, and we’re excited to unveil this living classroom when the school year starts.

Washburn’s outdoor classroom provides space for environmental education and a natural setting for student reflection. We have eight raised garden beds where we grow produce and teach students about the importance of fresh, healthy food. Some of these kids haven’t had the opportunity to garden in their home lives—they’ve never planted a seed or put on a pair of gardening gloves. You should see their faces when they pull a giant carrot out of the dirt or a shiny, red tomato off of the vine!

The classroom also features a fairy garden where kids engage in creative writing, bird feeders and birdhouses to help us study local birds, and quiet spaces where students can retreat. All of the plants are native, so we can teach students about pollinators and sustainable gardening practices. We’re even exploring ways we can use it in the winter months.

The outdoor classroom also helps kids learn about giving back—the food we grow in our gardens is donated to local food pantries.

We’ve received an enormous amount of help on this project from the USGBC Minnesota community. Over the course of this school year Washburn teachers, USGBC Minnesota volunteers and staff will create a case study focusing on the benefits of the classroom and the challenges as it applies to build-out, learning, maintenance and sustainability. We hope this case study can help other districts implement their own outdoor classrooms.

When my kids are outside, they don’t seem as stressed. That translates back to the traditional classroom as well—when they come back inside, they’re more engaged, happier, and work better together. That’s priceless.

In an age of increasing technological importance, we must remember that some of the most important life lessons are learned by getting back in touch with nature. An educational curriculum that features time spent learning about the outdoors and sustainability will create happier, healthier and more well-rounded students.

Schools that don’t have the option to introduce an outdoor classroom can still take advantage of ways to make their learning spaces greener and healthier. Green Apple Day of Service offers a range of options for supporting schools in getting a green project or lesson off the ground. Projects can range from an in-classroom lesson on sustainability to a hands-on greening project improving your school environment. USGBC has project ideas and support to help you along.

Register our project now to benefit from a partnership with Donors Choose, matching your dollars raised up to $200 per project while funds last. Be one of the first five registered in our West North Central Region—Wisconsin, Minnesota, North Dakota, Nebraska, Kansas, Missouri and Iowa—and receive a yearlong subscription to Learning Lab for sustainability curriculum and resources to help K–12 educators bring classroom projects to life. Contact Steph Leonard with questions.

Register a project for Green Apple Day of Service