Outdoor learning

Roz Hanchett leads an outdoor lesson at Robin’s Nest Nature Preschool in

Peterborough in 2019.

Outdoor classrooms and nature-based schools picked up new followers during the COVID-19 pandemic, but the enthusiasm is continuing beyond the necessities of the pandemic. New outdoor classroom enterprises are underway at Peterborough Elementary School, and a new nature preschool is set to open in Peterborough this September, while the lessons learned during the pandemic bolstered Robin’s Nest Nature Preschool.

The successes of outdoor learning this fall encouraged the Peterborough Elementary School PTO to fund more permanent outdoor learning opportunities, PTO Vice President Mackenzie Nichols said. Even prior to the pandemic, ConVal had been looking into outdoor classrooms for all the district’s elementary schools, PTO President Denise Zimmer said. The PTO decided to use the momentum from this past fall and pursue more permanent outdoor learning options, rather than wait for the district-wide initiative to make it into the budget, Zimmer said.

The PTO is currently fundraising for a durable sun shade and an outdoor whiteboard for what Nichols hopes is the first of multiple outdoor learning spaces on school grounds.

“My son would come home daily being very excited” this fall, attending kindergarten outside under tents, Nichols said. “He is in his element when he runs around in the backyard, and plays, and gets to explore.”

More time spent outside during school hours seemed to suit him well, Nichols said, and she liked it too. “As a parent, I’ve always struggled with wanting public school and also the outdoor learning experience,” she said.

Outdoor classes seem to allow kids a little more playtime between activities, and more freedom with their masks when they can distance themselves outside, she said. The pandemic presented an opportunity to “trial run” outdoor learning for educators who may never have attempted it, Nichols said, and it was apparently successful. Peterborough Elementary School teachers continue to bring students outside to eat lunch or for health class, but by choice now, rather than requirement. “That’s great to see,” she said.

Peterborough Elementary School teachers provided their preferences and priorities for outdoor learning spaces earlier this year, Nichols said, and Principal Larry Pimental was “a huge driving force” in the ongoing outdoor initiatives.

Future outdoor learning will look very similar to the way things went this fall, except with more permanent structures than tents, and the PTO as a funding source, which means no impacts on taxpayers, Nichols said. The first outdoor classroom will have grass underfoot, a more natural and less expensive option than a concrete slab, she said. A durable sun shade will be attached to a permanent base and removed each winter, Nichols said. Teachers preferred outdoor learning spaces close enough to the building so they could easily bring any necessary materials outside, and out of sight of the playground to cut down on distractions, co-chair of the initiative Michaela Balcombe said. “Getting out in the fresh air is good for everybody,” she said.

Even schools with well-established outdoor curriculum had to make changes for the pandemic. It was easier for Robin’s Nest Nature Preschool students and staff to adapt to the COVID-19 pandemic than most other schools, founder Roz Hanchett said, since Robin’s Nest was already accustomed to learning outdoors. That said, staff took their commitment to the next level this year. Students spent just 10 hours inside through the entire school year so far, Hanchett said recently.

The Peterborough school supplemented its regular setup with a big platform tent for rain events, constructed a fire pit, and worked with Peterborough’s health officer to arrange a suitable outdoor toilet setup. “It was cold, but it was a doable winter,” she said. “Parents do a great job dressing their kids for the weather, and the fire pit really helps,” she said. Hanchett keeps a stash of extra clothes on hand for students as well, she said.

“Everything we learn this year will make it easier for next year,” Hanchett said, adding that they will “definitely” try to spend the same amount of time outside even as the pandemic eases. “It’s easier than it seems, really,” she said. Using the outdoors as a home base helps financially, too, as it allowed them to turn down the heat and cut other overhead costs, she said.

Robin’s Nest Nature Preschool enrolls between 30 and 40 kids and has a lengthy waitlist, Hanchett said, as current students and their siblings take priority, and some students start at 18 months old. Is there room for more nature-focused schools? “I highly encourage other people to do it if they can,” she said.

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