The Learning Landscape
Each school district in Wisconsin sets their own calendar and learning model. In past years, most schools offered in-person learning with virtual schools offering online learning. During the 2020-21 school year, however, these models vary widely across the state. How students attend school depends on their age level, health risks, and options offered by the district. Additionally, how teachers are providing instruction varies widely—with some educators teaching only in-person, some teaching only online, and some doing both simultaneously. This variety in delivery, coupled with other variations from local-control decisions, makes providing universal recommendations challenging.
The ideas presented below are starting points, not final solutions. They are provided to help schools, districts, and communities begin to engage in conversations about taking learning outdoors.
Outdoor Learning Considerations
Wisconsin's four seasons each pose unique opportunities and challenges for learning outdoors. Despite the challenges, schools throughout the state take learning outside all year long and these stories will be shared wherever possible.
With students learning both at school and remotely, safety and access for remote learners must be considered during planning. Tools and resources in the sections below can help schools maximize use of limited school grounds as well as consider additional possibilities such as partnerships with local community and nature centers.
Schools will need to navigate how outdoor space may be used simultaneously or sequentially for:
- each class to have its own meeting space,
- physical education classes,
- meals to be delivered, served, and eaten,
- before/after school programs,
- library programs, with outdoor reading and meeting areas,
- garden programs, with rotating visits from different classes, and
- community access to the school grounds after hours.
Learning outdoors doesn't have to mean learning about the outdoors. While learning about the outdoors is encouraged, time outdoors benefits students physically, emotionally, and academically no matter what they are studying.
- View this infographic from the Children & Nature Network of the benefits of nature and academic outcomes.
School Story: Woodside elementary teacher, Peter Dargatz, uses tree stumps as desks. Read more
A growing body of research indicates that we need nature for physical, mental, and social-emotional health and well-being. The Children & Nature Network research library is an excellent resource to find more information. This infographic from the Children & Nature Network highlights some of these benefits. The size of your school grounds and nearby safe spaces may limit the number of students who can be outdoors at one time, but even if students can learn outside for one hour each day, they reap benefits.
School Story: Student learning specialist Kelly Koller is working to support social-emotional learning this year through time outdoors. Read more and get resources on Twitter and YouTube.
Taking learning outdoors doesn't require expensive equipment or gear, however, planning with equity in mind does require consideration for providing some gear to remove barriers. Some spaces may offer expanded opportunity with simple infrastructure installations. These need not be expensive construction projects and the resources in the section below provide many low-cost solutions.
The Children & Nature Network Green Schoolyards Resource Hub provides ideas for funding, including: Bond Funding, Green Stormwater Infrastructure Funding, Corporate Funding, Conservation Funding, Federal Funding, and State & Local Tax Funding. When outside funding is required, schools can also consider these resources:
- GO Fund, Natural Resources Foundation of Wisconsin
- Teachers' Outdoor Environmental Education Fund, Natural Resources Foundation of Wisconsin
- EEinWisconsin.org Grant Directory
- Talk with community foundations. Many foundations have adjusted their funding priorities to respond to the pandemic.
- Talk with local business and industry. How can these organizations be part of the solution to help have a healthy community and workforce?
- Schools have been receiving donations of tree stumps, tree cookies, straw bales, fabric, seat cushions, and more to take learning outdoors. Engage your PTO and other community organizations in supporting your work for healthy schools!
Scenarios for Physical Distancing Outdoors
Take an asset-based approach. Instead of dwelling on what you don't have, use one of these outdoor classroom assessments to figure out what you DO have:
- Outdoor Classroom Assessment from the National COVID-19 Outdoor Learning Initiative
- School Grounds Site Inventory from LEAF
Once you complete your assessment, then sign-up with Green Schoolyards of America to receive customized support from a volunteer landscape architect to identify additional ways to maximize learning spaces outdoors.
Focus on low-cost outdoor infrastructure.
Work with your buildings and grounds staff and use these tools to think about how to increase the number of outdoor learning spaces:
- Outdoor Infrastructure Cost Estimate Tool. Download this spreadsheet to create a cost estimate for your outdoor learning plan.
- Outdoor Classroom Configuration Options. Download this worksheet to estimate the size of each outdoor classroom your school needs.
- Got Stumps? Sample Template. Customize this Google Doc to seek support in your community for stump donation.
If outdoor spaces are not assigned by grade-level, consider creating a schedule for use of outdoor spaces.
Check out these three "thought experiments" to explore a range of site planning options at three public schools located in different climates and contexts. Each example includes a range of site design scenarios, including low cost options:
- Elementary School in the Los Angeles Area, California
Very hot climate, suburban location, classroom doors open directly onto the school grounds
- Elementary School in the San Francisco Bay Area, California
Mild year-round climate, urban neighborhood, next to a park
- Elementary School in Northern Virginia
Climate with four distinct seasons (very hot summers and mild, snowy winters), suburban location
Instructional Models and Learning Outdoors
Education Forward outlined five models of instruction, regardless of in-person, physically distanced learning, or virtual learning. Taking learning outdoors is applicable to each of these models.
Enriched Virtual (4+ Days of Instruction with Teacher)
In this model students are in-person with the teacher for two days per week, connected virtually for two days, and working independently or virtually the other day. In this model, the teacher must be connected to a camera for synchronous instructional broadcasting. Taking learning outside would require a mobile video device with data, such as a cell phone or a tablet connected to a hotspot.
School Story: With teaching to students both in person and at home simultaneously, teachers at High Marq Environmental Charter School had "student liaisons" posting photos to Google Hangouts during their outdoor learning time and the at-home field teams were posting their own photos as well to create a shared experience. Another tool they have used is posting to a shared iNaturalist account at the same time for a BioBlitz. All students used anonymous, shared accounts to avoid sharing personally identifiable information.
Enriched Virtual (2+ Days of Instruction with Teacher)
In this model, students are learning face-to-face with the teacher two days per week and working independently or virtually the other three days. Consider creating place-based units to take learning out into the community or providing opportunities to explore the "near nature" outside their window or just outside the door where safe.
Community Story: To address distance learning and encourage time in nature, both FIELD Edventures through their EEK! Connect, Explore, Engage blog and Urban Ecology Center in Milwaukee through their UEC in My Backyard created activities to support outdoor education remotely.
Station Rotation Model
If schools are engaging in a fixed station rotation model, one of those stations could be outdoors on the school ground or outside in the community. Another opportunity may be to extend your school space into a community location by partnering with a local nature center. These buildings are often equipped with Internet access and classroom space and also provide access to outdoor spaces. Learn more about Nature Centers as Partners in Education.
If going to a community location isn't an option, partnering with a local nature center to bring non-formal educators to your school grounds to support learning outdoors on a regular basis could be another solution. These environmental educators have a wealth of experience to offer classroom educators. Use this Outdoor Configuration Classroom layout to imagine what this might look like on your school grounds.
Like with the station rotation model above, stations for outdoor learning—on the school grounds, at home, or at a community location—can be integrated into the student's individual schedule.
In the flipped classroom model, taking learning outdoors with any of the above ideas can be applied in either the teacher-guided practice or project or the independent coursework and content.
À la Carte
In this model, taking learning outdoors can be applied to any of the settings.