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Log in to Witsby: ASCD’s Next-Generation Professional Learning and Credentialing Platform
April 1, 2001
Vol. 58
No. 7

Into the Woods, Wetlands, and Prairies

More than just field trips or playgrounds, outdoor environments offer hands-on, integrated, and thematic learning and help students gain an appreciation for the natural environment.

I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.—Henry David Thoreau
It's no accident that Henry David Thoreau went into the woods near Walden Pond to learn firsthand about life from nature. Natural settings provide a context for teaching and learning with which no textbook or computer-based learning environment can compete. At best, authors of textbooks and virtual learning packages pass along secondhand information that they have obtained from observation and discovery. What if students discovered the information firsthand? The person who sees, discovers, and explores a situation gets the most out of it. This premise is the foundation of outdoor education. In fact, research shows that when students learn in outdoor settings as compared to staying in the classroom, they learn more quickly, appreciate the experience more, and retain skills and knowledge longer (Sharp, 1973).

The School Design and Planning Laboratory

Since 1997, the School Design and Planning Laboratory at the University of Georgia (www.coe.uga.edu/sdpl/sdpl.html) has been working to integrate the concept of outdoor learning environments into the thinking of school leaders. The Laboratory conducts research on how the physical environment affects student learning and behavior; provides service to schools in planning and school design, including outdoor learning environments; and offers graduate courses in school facilities planning, school facilities management, and school design. A major goal of the Laboratory is to make physical learning environments more teacher- and learner-friendly in a multicultural society. The Laboratory provides outreach services to schools to assist them in making their physical learning environments compatible with the curriculum and the total school program.
The School Design and Planning Laboratory requires its students—teachers, principals, and school administrators—to make site visits to learn how different schools use space to enhance student learning and behavior. When Laboratory students visit schools, they focus on the outdoor learning environment and the school buildings. Students use checklists of 39 design features to rate the physical environment on criteria founded on principles of learning (Tanner, 2000).
For example, they look for play areas where students can exercise their imaginations, release energy, use their muscles, and test new skills; they note whether the school grounds are compatible with the surroundings and sufficient to facilitate the curriculum and programs; and they note whether the site and learning environments are free of excessive nonpedestrian traffic and noise, either naturally or because of built barriers. They evaluate the types of playgrounds: traditional, creative, adventure, and environmental. The graduate students look for places where schoolchildren can perform motor activities—jump, run, throw, kick, bounce, balance, travel, ride, and move slowly. They also look for places where students can reflect, eat, discover, construct, and create.
The Laboratory's curriculum emphasizes environmental awareness (bogs, gardens, ponds, water conservation, and animal habitats, for example) and the role of the physical environment in student learning (Greenman, 1988). The students use the information to build or enhance outdoor learning environments at their own schools.

A Walk Through Time

One of the sites that the students visit and that exemplifies the checklist criteria is Screven County Middle School, Sylvania, Georgia. Located in a rural community in southeast Georgia, 60 miles north of Savannah, the school provides supervised educational experiences in social studies and language arts for middle school students through an interdisciplinary curriculum.
Carolina Bay, a lowland area on the Screven County Middle School campus, is a natural wetland and the starting point of the school's living history project. This 3-acre swamp displays a rich ecological system of native plant and animal life. The undisturbed natural setting is adjacent to the new school building and was designed by the middle school principal, teachers, and community members. Students study the natural environment and ecosystems at the site.
Students, teachers, and community members reconstructed a Mississippian Indian village site on the flats on the school grounds adjacent to Carolina Bay. To complete the living Georgia history project that is required of all 8th graders, students in language arts and social studies conducted research, wrote papers, and made oral and computer presentations about the village and the wetland. Students visited the swamp and the village and integrated the hands-on knowledge and experiences they gained there with their classroom reading, Internet research, and writing.
The success of that project inspired the school and community to expand the site into a six-acre outdoor learning experience of Georgia history called “A Walk Through Time.” During the project's development, local businesses donated materials or gave significant discounts on supplies and materials. Parents and community members volunteered to construct some of the buildings, specifically the roofing of the structures because safety concerns prohibited students from working on ladders or climbing on top of the buildings. Parents and grandparents made costumes, provided props from family collections for presentations, served as advisors on specific projects, and allowed students to gather materials from their property. Volunteers supervised field trips and presentation days. Other community members helped set up flint-knapping demonstrations and participated as traders.
Students today visit a constructed archaeological dig near the banks of Carolina Bay. They experience, in chronological sequence, reconstructed Paleocene, Archean, and Mississippian Indian sites that include replicas of an earth lodge, an effigy mound, ancient dwellings, and a gold mine. Students note that gold mines were the primary cause of the Native Americans' displacement from their lands. On planned special event days, the school and community reenact the Trail of Tears.
Next, students encounter a Georgia frontier settlement, where volunteers and students demonstrate period activities, such as gardening, cooking, music, hide tanning, and shingle and candle making. A blacksmith shop, livery stable, horse-drawn wagon, one-room schoolhouse, log cabin, and law-and-order stocks on the town square are also showcased. Just beyond the settlement, a modern farm completes the historical project and brings the walk to the present day.
Students are not allowed to visit "A Walk Through Time" without supervision, but such organizations as 4-H, Y-Club, or Future Farmers of America can schedule the use of these spaces and places beyond the school day. The site is always available for outdoor instruction, but because of its popularity, it must be reserved in advance, and for legal reasons, a teacher or administrator must be present.

Other Spaces and Places

Outdoor learning environments take many forms. Two other exemplary sites provide examples.

The Welch Outdoor Learning Center

Unlike "A Walk Through Time," the Katy, Texas, Independent School District's Welch Outdoor Learning Center (www.katy.isd.tenet.edu/olc) is not on a school site. The school district owns and operates the facility, which consists of 34.5 acres of primarily wooded land.
The Welch Outdoor Learning Center's Web site offers examples of lesson plans and student activities for grades 2, 4, and 7 that change with the four seasons. The Center emphasizes social studies, science, archaeology, history, and mathematics. Students learn about Native American villages and the gold rush, and participate in archeological digs. In mathematics, students estimate areas and distances on the Center's grounds, then take measurements and make comparisons. For example, they estimate the surface area of the pond in square feet, yards, or meters, then take measurements to calculate the actual area. The lesson culminates in calculating the area of the pond in acres. The U.S. Department of Agriculture suggests this activity for studying people and natural resources.

The Environmental Science Academy

The Rockford Environmental Science Academy in Rockford, Illinois, (www.designshare.com/Awards/10006/10006_Prog.htm and www.rps205.com) is a magnet school for grades 6, 7, and 8. This integrated indoor and outdoor learning center reinforces the school as the center of the community. It includes a community room for parent volunteers, cultural events, and art and traveling exhibitions. Community members assist students in planting gardens in designated areas. Students have developed wetland and prairie areas. Some farm structures have been converted into a recycling center. The staff emphasizes the use of all available resources. The 45-acre site incorporates bike, fitness, and community trails; an outdoor classroom; student gardens; an arboretum; science courtyards; butterfly gardens; native planting projects; and spaces for small mammal studies. To complement the study of science, the indoor facilities include a working greenhouse, an earth center with stream tables, hydroponics, aquariums, and places for student research displays.
Schools that want to create their own outdoor learning environments can learn a great deal by visiting such sites as the ones in Georgia, Texas, and Illinois. Such sources as state cooperative extensions services, the U.S. Forest Service, and local and national environmental groups can also provide valuable advice and assistance.
Outdoor learning environments can bring indoor and outdoor educational activities together in a meaningful way. When teaching about nature, history, social studies, language arts, or science, teachers not only ask students to read about the subject—they also allow students to experience content in a natural setting. This pedagogy integrates abstract concepts and hands-on learning activities. And, like Thoreau, some students may discover that nature is an apt teacher.

Greenman, J. (1988). Caring spaces, learning places: Children's environments that work. Redmond, WA: Exchange Press.

Sharp, L. B. (1973). What is outdoor education? In D. R. Hammerman & W. M. Hammerman (Eds.), Outdoor education (pp. 2–6). Minneapolis, MN: Burgess Publishing Company.

Tanner, C. K. (2000). The influence of school architecture on student achievement. Journal of Educational Administration, 38(4), 309–330.

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