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Outdoor Classrooms

February 28, 2010  • 

In July 2008, Rebecca P. Cohen walked around the schoolyard of her children’s future public elementary school. She and her boys, then 4 and 6, were excited but disappointed when they came to what looked like a once-loved garden. “There were five large garden beds, one for every grade, but the beds were bare,” she says.

With a passion for gardening and believing that every child should have access to an outdoor space for learning, Rebecca volunteered for a parent teacher advisory council in the fall and began to ask about the garden. She researched established school gardens, visiting them and understanding the basics of what is needed for a teacher to plan a lesson for any subject outside.

Funding was her next challenge: Rebecca submitted applications for grants to fund a refurbishment of the space, but only one grant came through, enough for just two trees. Not letting the lack of money slow her down, she suggested the idea of a two-day Earth Day 2009 event to the school principal, where every one of the 1,000 children in the school would get the chance to go into the garden space and talk about what they wanted to learn about in their outdoor classroom and draw their vision using dry-erase paddles donated by KleenSlate. Each class planted a plant in the bed designated for their grade; not only were there flowers, but also native plants and vegetables.

Building on the momentum generated by the Earth Day event, another parent volunteered to lead a schoolyard beautification committee and arranged family volunteer days, where students and parents helped care for the garden. In the summer, families took turns caring for the space and were allowed to harvest the greens, beans, corn and berries that were planted. From her experience researching what is needed for a learning garden, Rebecca created a free guide entitled, Outdoor Classrooms: The Basics, a step-by-step guide to creating an outdoor learning space. The two-page guide also has outdoor lesson ideas for each season of the school year.

Rebecca continues to return to the school to teach outdoor lessons to the children, including reinforcing classroom lessons about shapes and patterns by planting patterns of orange and purple pansies, helping kindergarteners make their own bagel bird feeders and teaching kids about the native plants and vegetables in the garden. “Seeing how an outdoor learning experience touches the life of a child brings such great joy to my life,” says Rebecca. “I will not rest until every school in the country has a space for children to experience textbook lessons first-hand with an experience outside. And, I believe for children to see how a seed grows to a plant that they can harvest and eat makes them much more likely to eat in a healthier way.”

Are you inspired to see how small changes to a school’s outdoor space can make a huge difference in your children’s lives? Rebecca’s free step-by-step guide to outdoor classrooms, Outdoor Classrooms: The Basics, is available online! Her website also has numerous video segments about vegetable gardening, and you can view her video series, Get Out of the House, for inspiration to get outside year round.