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Children wading in river
Photo: Thorne Nature Center.

Outdoor Classrooms: A Brave New Way to Go to School?

Nature-based schools in the Denver area are planting the seed of the European forest school model.

Last fall, a hawk glided past ten eager preschoolers during their school day in Denver’s City Park. Like lightning, the bird of prey swooped down, caught a squirrel, and quickly retreated into an oak tree. The whole scene unfolded mere feet from where the young students stood.

“I had everyone drop their backpacks, and we did a lesson, on the spot, around life cycles and food webs,” says Megan Patterson, founder and executive director of the Worldmind Nature Immersion School, an outdoor-based school in Denver. On another day, Patterson’s class got an impromptu lesson in water systems when one curious student noticed snow melting into City Park’s drainage system.

Thorne Nature Preschool operates schools in Boulder and Lafayette, and both classrooms are situated alongside creeks. During the 2020-21 school year, a great blue heron regularly visited Thorne’s Lafayette campus, so teachers created a unit based on their new visitor, says education programs director Erin Saunders. In addition to watching the heron, students read books about wading birds and walked through the nearby creek, walking and stalking prey like their visitor. “Nature always provides rich learning opportunities,” Saunders says.

Among nature-based educators, there are countless anecdotes like these. Teachable moments unfold naturally throughout every out-of-doors school day, making nature an effective teaching tool equal to the most well-research curriculum.

What is a Forest School, Anyway?

You may have seen images of rosy-cheeked Scandinavian kindergarteners huddled together in the snowy woods, whittling with real knives near a fire they built under the auspices of a teacher. This is their classroom. These schools, called Forest Schools, have been popular across Europe for decades, and according to Patterson, they are really just beginning to gain traction here in the U.S.

According to the U.K.-based Forest Schools Association, Forest School is a child-centered learning process, in which kids’ regular class sessions take place in woodland or natural environments.

Worldmind is Colorado’s first licensed outdoor-based preschool and kindergarten, and Patterson—who received the highest level forest school training while studying in the U.K.—says there’s a notable difference between “forest schools” and “outdoor-based classrooms.” With outdoor-based education, Patterson and her colleagues still cover Common Core subjects, but the vast majority of teaching occurs outside.

The building makes a difference, too: Here in Colorado, it’s not possible to meet state licensing requirements for preschools and kindergartens without having a brick-and-mortar building. Preschoolers, by Colorado law, are required to have lunch and naptime indoors.

Worldmind’s building is the historic Graystone Mansion in the City Park neighborhood. But last year, the school’s kindergarteners and first graders spent 100 percent of their time outdoors.

Student-Led Learning

While there might not be any true forest schools here in Colorado—yet—outdoor-based schools like Worldmind and Thorne deliver forest school-inspired concepts through a student-led learning model, meaning teachers follow the interests of their students. Teachers then use their students’ interests to build lessons spanning a range of subjects.

If children are interested in the changing of leaves, teachers could engage the class in looking at colors and shapes, reading books about plants, and learning about what plants and animals do to prepare for winter, says Saunders. It’s all about taking students’ natural passions and expanding them into “something deeper,” she says.When it comes to

teaching preschoolers the basics, Thorne students wouldn’t sit down to do a worksheet on the letter A, explains Saunders. Instead, they learn the alphabet by drawing their ABCs into the sandbox with a stick or learning to recognize letters painted onto rocks. When it comes to early math concepts, understanding color and shape are foundational skills. Examples of both are plentiful outdoors. “There are so many different colors in nature, and so many things to count,” Saunders says.

Outdoor-based programs also prioritize life skills, including building shelters, making fires, and working with tools, the latter of which are fundamental components of other learning models, such as Waldorf and Montessori.

Another key component, Patterson says, involves allowing students to take calculated risks. Teachers emphasize social-emotional learning through problem solving and collaboration, which come easily when students are spending most of their time in nature. Both Saunders and Patterson think of Mother Nature as a co-teacher.

Front Range nature educators believe that you don’t actually have to be in a forest to lead forest-based learning. Worldmind is based in the heart of Denver. “Often there’s a disconnect between the city and nature…[but] there are so many authentic nature opportunities right here in Denver,” Patterson says. “We often use a small patch of grass, and there’s no limit to what we can do and discover.” In fact, she says her students have seen more wildlife in City Park than on field trips to Chautauqua Park in Boulder.

Questions About the Outdoor Classroom

The nontraditional outdoor education model sometimes raises questions about its effectiveness. Sharon Danks, CEO of Green Schoolyards America, says teachers sometimes assume that holding class outside will be more unmanageable than inside. “It’s just the opposite,” Patterson says. “When you give students an opportunity to move and explore, then they are invested in learning and can actually sit and concentrate.”

Last year, Worldmind did benchmarking and progress monitoring through aimswebPlus, an assessment tool from the education assessment company, Pearson. Students experienced “significant growth,” Patterson reports. “A number of students came in below grade level in reading and/or math, and by the end of the school year they were on grade level or above.”

Winter weather is another hurdle Patterson and Saunders have to overcome with state regulators and prospective parents. “Kids don’t get sick from being outside in cold weather,” Patterson says. Science backs this assertion—colds are caused by viruses—according to information from the American Academy of Pediatrics. Reasearch published by the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences also shows that while cold weather isn’t the source of illness, it may reduce the body’s ability to fight off a virus.

“It’s all about having good gear,” Saunders says. Students at Thorne and Worldmind get extensive gear lists at the beginning of the school year. (Thorne’s lending library provides gear for families in need.) If conditions are truly hazardous, there’s always the classroom to fall back on. But most days, Saunders says, “Children are dressed well and they love being outside in the winter.”

Does the Model Work Anywhere?

There are many health benefits associated with being outdoors. One that has been in the forefront of our lives lately is that being outside helps reduce the risk of COVID-19 transmission, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Many Colorado school administrators added outdoor canopy structures in order to allow teachers to hold some classes outside. But how did things really play out?

At the Odyssey School of Denver, for example, teachers did more teaching outside than in years past. “We marked off our playground into sections so teachers could ‘check out’ outside spaces during the school day,” explains Elki Neiberger, the charter school’s director of operations. Students also ate lunch outside, and will continue the tradition this year “whenever the weather cooperates,” adds Neiberger.

As part of its expeditionary learning mission, the Odyssey School has a robust outdoor adventure program. Though the school is situated between busy streets, “I don’t think it’s any more difficult for our students to focus outside than in the classroom, especially if outdoor time is well planned,” Neiberger says.

Red Rocks Elementary principal Greg Isaac has a slightly different point of view. The school, located in Morrison, isn’t an outdoor school, but for years Isaac and his co-workers have had a vision for incorporating outdoor curriculum into the classroom. Isaac even planned to move classes outside during the pandemic, but implementation was “totally different,” he says. “We’re a neighborhood school following all of the public school guidelines, and there are significant limitations.”

Outdoor lunches and read-alouds sounded good in theory, but from a practical standpoint, teachers at Red Rocks Elementary have found it can be tricky to get kids to pay attention amidst outside distractions like airplanes and wildlife.

“We have a compelling vision and the heart and mind to understand the value of outdoor education, but we’re also pragmatists,” Isaac says. “Many in society don’t understand the true limits placed on educators. As a neighborhood school, with limited staff and schedules to keep, we’re finding that outdoor education is extremely complex. Stepping outside, while incredibly beneficial to kids overall, can’t totally replace the mental focus students need to complete many of the rigorous academic standards of today.”

Given these limitations, it’s easier, perhaps, for private schools to embrace outdoor education. Montessori School of Denver purchased tents so teachers could deliver lessons outdoors, and they also spent more time walking around outside MSD’s campus, exploring nature in nearby neighborhoods. The school is currently adding an outdoor amphitheater and an open-air mindfulness space. “We were committed to being in person as much as we possibly could last year, and being outside worked,” says Anne Hewetson, dean of programs and student life.

As students experience outdoor education, educators at Worldmind see change. “I love seeing the level of confidence and self-esteem increase in our students. Parents start calling to say that they are seeing an increase of confidence and self-esteem in their kids, outside of the classroom,” says Patterson. “And with that, we see them have the ability to take more risks, both academically and socially.”

That connection to nature becomes a way of life for the students of outdoor schools. “Nature is a grounding and creative force in our daughter’s life,” says Claire Brooker, a mom from Arvada, whose 10-year-old daughter attends Worldmind’s home-school enrichment program. “She is inspired to investigate, test, build, and imaginatively play with the things she sees around her. Being outside in natural environments has also provided magical places for her and her friends to learn to work together to create a shared vision of what they want to play. A day without time outside is a sad day at our house.”

Jamie Siebrase is a Denver-based writer and mother of three.

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