Students at Littlewood Elementary School in Gainesville, Florida are enjoying their new outdoor classroom, thanks to a partnership with the U.S. Forest Service and a GreenWorks! grant from Project Learning Tree. The outdoor classroom includes seating for 24 students, as well as bird feeders, bird baths, and native plants that provide food and shelter for wildlife.
The students were involved in many aspects of creating the outdoor classroom; from site planning and design, through installing bird feeders, planting native species, developing adopt-a-tree signs, and creating stepping stone mosaics.
Teachers are thrilled to have this outdoor space where students can be immersed in learning about nature. They observe bird behavior, calculate the dollar value of trees, measure plant growth, and collect data on seasonal changes.
Training and Resources
To help teachers take maximum advantage of the outdoor classroom, myself and Ms. Whitehead, a Littlewood teacher, organized teacher trainings for them. Nancy Peterson and Annie Oxarart with Florida Project Learning Tree provided instruction in PLT’s PreK-8 Environmental Education Activity Guide and GreenSchools training. Ms. Whitehead and I also held another workshop which included tips for success with outdoor learning, a teacher’s perspective, and an introduction to the outdoor exploration backpack program. These experiences really helped teachers take maximum advantage of not only creating, but also using, their school’s outdoor classroom.
The backpacks include ready-made lessons that incorporate bird, tree, and other nature themes and they are available for teachers to check out. The backpack materials feature some of PLT’s most popular activities to do outdoors, along with student pages and other supporting resources. The highlighted activities include:
- #21. Adopt a Tree
- #25. Birds and Worms
- #46. Schoolyard Safari
- #62. To Be a Tree
Steps to Take When Creating Your Own Outdoor Classroom
Here are some tips and lessons we learned along the way:
1. Get buy-in. Start with approval from administrators and buy-in from teachers. When I started the school’s Green Team with Littlewood teacher Ms. Whitehead, we worked together to involve other teachers and the school’s administration as we developed plans for the outdoor classroom.
2. Assemble a team. Develop a Green Team of students, teachers, administrators, parents, and volunteers who can help with the project. Invite PTA members and team with local agencies and organizations who can provide resources and expertise. For example, contact your PLT State Coordinator and staff who work at local nature centers or parks. Or, click here to find your regional U.S. Forest Service Conservation Education Coordinator who can put you in touch with local outreach educators.
3. Assess the site. Conduct PLT’s GreenSchools School Site Investigation with your “Green Team.” This will help you map your school site, inventory the plants and animals, and assess ways the school grounds can be used for outdoor learning. As you select a site for the outdoor classroom, consider one that includes shady areas for classroom space and sunny areas for native plants to attract birds and butterflies.
4. Engage volunteers. Volunteers make the difference! Reach out to parents and community members to find volunteers who can assist with the outdoor classroom plan. Littlewood was able to get assistance from:
- A local landscape architect helped students envision what the site would look like and incorporated their ideas into a final drawing
- The art teacher helped students make mosaic stepping stones and tree identification signs
- Parent volunteers helped make the tree sign bases
- A local graphic designer developed a bird sign
- A local master gardener and the landscape architect helped students plan a pollinator garden
5. Seek funding. Apply for a PLT GreenWorks! grant to help offset costs and reach out to local businesses for donations of materials, such as building supplies, birdfeeders, wood chips, and so forth.
6. Have a lot of patience! Be prepared for it to take much longer than you originally thought. The end result will be well worth it!
Here’s more inspiration to help you get started on an outdoor classroom for your school.
Building Outdoor Classrooms: A Guide for Successful Fundraising. This guide, published by the Ontario Forestry Association and TD Friends of the Environment Foundation in Canada, includes tips for getting started, things to consider, examples of outdoor classroom plans, and inspiring case studies.
Developing an Outdoor Classroom. This guide published by the University of Tennessee Extension provides detailed information on the importance of outdoor classrooms, getting started, site selection, obtaining funds, cross-curriculum integration, and more.
Outdoor Classroom Users Guide. This guide, published by the Boston Schoolyard Initiative, includes tips on designing and maintaining an outdoor classroom, structuring outdoor science lessons, seasonal activities, and outdoor classroom management.