“On a warm, sunny day I’ll teach in our outside. It’s much nicer for learning than having four walls surrounding you,” says Chad Simms, Campus Administrator at CONA’s Corner Brook Campus. “New generations have to get reconnected to nature, and this is one way to do it.”

Apart from the activity, outdoor classrooms are used for the collaboration and curiosity they inspire in students. As of late they’ve been spotted cropping up on campuses, schoolyards and even preschool grounds province-wide.

CONA

In 2009 the College of the North Atlantic, in partnership with the Canadian Institute of Forestry, created a post-secondary outdoor classroom at the Corner Brook campus. The outfitted green space serves as an instructional area for students and instructors of the college’s Adventure Tourism, Forestry, Fishery and Wildlife, Geographical Information Systems and Environment Technology Programs — as well as a decent spot for anyone to grab some lunch or just sit in the sun.

“As opposed to putting a plant or tree on Powerpoint, you can have the student bend over and literally examine it in its natural environment.” —Glen Knee

Glen Knee, Forestry Instructor for the College of the North Atlantic, was among those instrumental in bringing the outdoor classroom to CONA’s Corner Brook campus.

“Teaching the class outside brings it all together,” says Knee. “As opposed to putting a plant or tree on Powerpoint, you can have the student bend over and literally examine it in its natural environment.”

Simms says the college and CIF are now completing stage one of the outdoor classroom design first unveiled in 2009. CONA’s outdoor classroom is located on campus grounds, replete with permanent benches gathered in U-shaped formation facing a flat rock hill face. Phase two will involve building stairs that bridge the classroom to the parking lot, as well as potentially installing outdoor lighting and audiovisual equipment.

Botanical Garden

Memorial University’s Botanical Garden has been into hosting classes outdoors for a while now. The Garden offers a variety of educational training to students and teachers from K to 12, as well as the general public. Their educational programs can vary widely and are more often customized to enrich a school’s science and art curriculums.

“Were discovering that schools don’t simply want to beautify their school grounds with a garden,” says Anne Madden, MUN Botanical Garden’s Education Coordinator. “They also want to create an active learning environment that focuses on local wildlife and ways to conserve and encourage our environment.”

“Parents today have the best intentions but we’re all so busy. I fear the freedom children had before is gone today.” —Anne Madden

In October 2010 the Gardens offered the two-day “Breaking Ground: Teacher’s Workshop” to twenty schoolteachers. They collected their feedback and last month released the first-of-it’s-kind instructional manual for local teachers, entitled Breaking Ground – Biodiversity in the Schoolyard: A Resource Manual for Newfoundland and Labrador Educators.

Meanwhile, even though Madden says the Breaking Ground manual will serve as a great resource, she says the teachers were keen to learn in the field.

“Most of us learn by doing, and the teachers have told us unequivocally that they want to learn how to do this hands-on,” she says.

No Nature

Madden believes young people today experience nature much less when compared to her generation.

“When I was growing up back in the 60’s there were places to play outside, meadows and what not. Parents took us out swimming in ponds and playing in the woods,” says Madden. “Parents today have the best intentions but we’re all so busy. I fear the freedom children had before is gone today.”

Madden feels it’s more important then ever to engage young people’s enthusiasm for the outdoors.

“Teaching children by exposing them early to nature is quite like teaching children by exposing them early on to music. It helps with their development, steering them to be more proactive in their worlds.”

Preschool

The Children’s Centre in St. John’s has begun creating outdoor learning environments for their young patrons. “Playscapes,” are outdoor playgrounds designed entirely out of natural materials.

Nora Trask is one of the centre’s preschool teachers who helped envision and design their playscape. She’s quick to point out that recent studies prove that access to the outdoors decreases the occurrence of ADD and lowers stress in children.

“We even have a tree that fell down in our back yard after Igor, and we made it safe by cutting off the branches and so on. Children pretend it’s a rocket ship.” —Nora Trask

“It’s an entirely different scenario if you throw young people into a sea of pea gravel and plastic equipment,” says Trask. “When you put them into a living breathing environment, it’s suddenly up to the kids to combine the elements. The children want to know, ‘Why does a plant smell this way? Why is this bug here? Why does this piece of wood feel this way?’”

The centre opened its playscape last year, and made the most of Hurricane Igor’s tree wreckage.

“We had the trees that feel in Bannerman Park delivered to the centre and carved them into seating for the kids,” says Trask. “We even have a tree that fell down in our back yard after Igor, and we made it safe by cutting off the branches and so on. Children pretend it’s a rocket ship.”

They also have plans to build in a “hill slide,” or a slide built into the face of a hill, as well as wooden tables with tree stumps for seats and a wooden stage. They plan to create their very own vegetable and bulb gardens as well.

Trask says along with engaging learning behaviors and helping with stress reduction, outdoor play has been proven to help children be respectful early on.

“It increases their respect for nature, living things and the world.”