- Teachers at Prairie Hill Waldorf School in Pewaukee, Wisconsin, will teach students in person this year, but a significant part of the day will be spent outside.
- Fourth-grade teacher Lindsey Earle decided to build an outdoor classroom that will be used throughout the school year.
- “It was hard work, and everyone was just doing it with smiles on their faces and sweat dripping down their backs,” Earle told Insider.
- Outdoor classrooms have recently become a popular approach to teaching students in person, but they don’t come without challenges.
- Visit Insider’s homepage for more stories.
In Pewaukee, Wisconsin, students at Prairie Hill Waldorf School won’t be learning virtually from their computers or in their traditional classrooms this year. Instead, they’re taking their classes outside.
The students and teachers will face the elements of snow, rain, wind, and sunshine while they learn fractions, zoology, and reading skills.
The entire school has built learning spaces outdoors for each of its classes, but the most impressive may be Lindsey Earle’s fourth-grade classroom.
Over the past few weeks, with the help of students, their families, her husband, and friends, Earle has built a 12-sided outdoor classroom. The expansive structure will allow for social distancing and increased airflow – two things on many teachers’ minds as they consider the upcoming school year.
“The catalyst behind it was to create a really safe environment for us to be present together,” Earle told Insider.
The outdoor classroom will be used year-round and will feature a tarp roof and a heater for Wisconsin’s winter months. Inside, the students will sit in folding camp chairs that can easily be moved outside for breakouts, snack time, and reading groups.
“Every time I go out there, I just feel immense joy,” Earle said. “It’s such a beautiful space.”
A friend donated 125 slabs of wood to build the classroom. The rest was paid for by community members and the school, which cost a few hundred dollars, Earle said.
The structure is nearing completion and will be finished by the time students arrive for class next Wednesday. The final step is to add the tarp roof that will sit a few feet above the structure’s wall and allow for ventilation.
Many of this year’s lesson plans will also be adapted for the outdoors
Earle works at a Waldorf school, which is a system of private schools that prioritise creativity and imagination. The students at Prairie Hill Waldorf School also have the same teacher throughout their entire elementary school experience.
Earle has had the chance to watch these students grow and learn over the last few years, and she said she’s excited to discover the outdoors with them.
During maths class, students will draw connections with the natural world and numbers. For example, students might draw pies in the snow to help understand fractions through visual learning.
When Earle teaches state history and geography, nearby trails and walking paths will be a great opportunity to learn about Wisconsin through nature.
Earle said she feels much safer teaching outside
She told Insider that the teachers at Prairie Hill Waldorf School wanted to find a safer way to have in-person classes for students.
“We came to a consensus that we really felt like in-person education offers the most value to the students. And then our hurdle was trying to find a safe way to do it,” she said.
The CDC has encouraged schools to consider outdoor spaces that can function as classrooms, and scientists suggest that the risk of transmission is less likely outdoors than indoors, as social distancing is much easier to achieve.
The school’s early childhood program had an outdoor element, so it decided to re-create the component for its elementary school. Luckily, Prairie Hill Waldorf School has enough space for all grades to learn outside.
Earle estimates that a little over half of each day will be spent outside and the second half indoors. In both scenarios, desks will be socially distanced and students will be wearing masks.
However, outside learning doesn’t come without its challenges. Teachers need a backup plan for when the weather is too harsh, and many schools lack enough outdoor space to fit all of their students.
Teachers don’t need an elaborate structure or tools to take advantage of the outdoors
Earle’s 12-sided outdoor classroom is quite the undertaking, but the teacher stressed that you don’t need an elaborate structure or many tools to incorporate the outdoors into students’ days.
“It doesn’t have to cost anything to just allow your students to have moments of outdoor time,” she said.
Earle added that this outside classroom isn’t just a band-aid during the pandemic. She said she hopes outdoor learning becomes a staple at her school and schools across the country.
At Prairie Hill, Earle’s structure will serve as a test run while other teachers use more temporary spaces this year. Depending on the outcome, Earle hopes that the school adds more permanent structures that can be used by both the teachers and the community.
“I think [outdoor classrooms are] something that, even beyond this global pandemic, we want to continue to use because we see the value in offering outdoor education to students,” she said.
Earle said a few of her students have even stopped by the classroom to help her build.
“Just seeing them light up makes me feel like I did the right thing,” she told Insider.
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