Down By the Schoolyard
Sometimes the simplest ideas are the most profound. How else to describe the growing schoolyard education movement that has at its heart one fundamental axiom: "Take those kids outside!"? This simple idea has become a river into which some very robust streams of thought are pouring, streams which draw from the watersheds of environmental education, education reform, human ecology and beyond.
Across North America, teachers by the thousands are discovering that the outdoors presents a broad palette of opportunities for enriching their teaching. They are being encouraged not only by regional and national environmental organizations, but by natural resource agencies, community and parent groups, and school administrators. Perhaps more importantly, they are being reinforced by the results they see and the feedback they get from their students.
Schoolyard-based learning has become important to several Arlington County schools. At Tuckahoe Elementary, the schoolyard emphasis has become part of the school's very identity, as expressed by the school's motto, "Experience the World Through Tuckahoe." According to art teacher Caryl Williams, this means that "learning about the world should start where you are. A thorough understanding of your school and schoolyard form the best foundation for understanding the world at large."
The school is ringed by gardens, compost bins and a greenhouse, but most of what makes the Tuckahoe story special is invisible. Invisible, that is, if you don't notice that the place is crawling with parents.
Williams explains that the schoolyard program provides parents opportunities for involvement "beyond baking cookies." Together, a committee of parents and teachers designed a proposal for a series of Expedition Days, in which teachers and other adults work with small, mixed age groups of children for an hour each month on a self-selected outdoor exploration.
Parent Beth Reese explains that the Expedition Days have allowed teachers to try out ideas in a low stress situation. "We specifically asked them to spend no more than one hour planning for the activity," she says. "The important thing is to start with a good question."
Expedition groups have studied birds, erosion and stormwater, trees and soil. They have mapped and drawn and written poetry. One group has marked out a nature trail in an adjoining park. An important component of Expedition Days is the sharing of new knowledge with the rest of the school, whether through a poster, photographs or video. One group has developed a hypertext field guide to the schoolyard.
"It hasn't been just teachers leading these activities," says Reese. "Several parents and community members have been involved, as well as the school secretary. Our custodian leads a litter study."
At several Arlington schools, parents have provided the spark for outdoor learning. At Nottingham Elementary, parent and naturalist Karen McCall visited classes and asked students to help envision an outdoor classroom. What eventually emerged was an expansive bird and butterfly habitat garden that stretches across the front schoolyard. "Involving students in the planning is one of the most important principles," says McCall.
In a recent survey of the schoolyard habitat movement, educator Mary Rivkin identified eight national and 28 regional or local organizations devoted to promoting schoolyard habitat projects. No doubt there are more. But while the schoolyard as wildlife habitat is a major current in the movement, it does not define it. Nor is science the only subject that benefits. There is also a strong current flowing around gardening, emphasizing the cultivation of plants as a window into literature, nutrition, history and math.
In part, the schoolyard movement flows from a concern that has echoed through environmental education literature: the belief that the next generation absolutely must possess a fundamental ecological literacy if it is to have a chance of dealing with such daunting challenges as global warming and the loss of biodiversity and other natural resources.
How many adults today can define what soil is, for example? And yet the loss of topsoil is a worldwide problem, growing quietly towards crisis status. The typical urban or suburban schoolyard cannot convey the grandeur of the caribou migration or the richness and complexity of the rain forest, but most likely it will hold some kind of soil, perhaps of dubious quality, but which nonetheless hosts countless tiny organisms interacting in tandem, ready to decompose anything that nature has ever discarded.
The schoolyard also presents an opportunity to counteract a very dangerous myth, that nature is something that exists in faraway places, unconnected to our lives and managed by experts. Our trees sequester carbon and host life just like those in the rain forest. The simple knowledge that birds migrate through our neighborhoods on their way to those very rain forests can add a real sense of connectedness. Wildlife habitats such as butterfly gardens can provide intimate experiences with such fundamental but elusive concepts as food webs, energy flows and symbiosis. A vegetable garden can provide a personal lesson on just how much energy it takes to produce the food that sustains us, linking us once again to the soil.
Rivkin points out that a hundred years ago most children walked through woods and fields to reach school; teaching about the natural environment was in many ways moot. Today, however, urbanization and its side effects have dramatically altered the life-space of most North American children and put them in what may be deeply "unnatural" environments for the human animal.
Habitat for Children
The second major source of the movement is the realization that the schoolyard is a critical habitat--for children. By the time they finish sixth grade, most children have spent close to 2000 hours of their lives in schoolyards. It was the barrenness of so many of these environments that inspired the creation of the British program Learning Through Landscapes (LTL), which in turn inspired the transformation of 10,000 schoolyards into imaginative learning gardens. The program started after a 1985 survey found that the vast majority of British schoolyards failed miserably to provide creative spaces for either formal or informal learning.
Summarizing research commissioned by LTL, director Bill Lucas says that the schoolyard forms part of a hidden curriculum, through which children learn how much or how little adults value their environment. "When they see tarmac they think of pain and the territorial advantage that attaches itself to so many of the games played on it. When they see flowers, they feel good. All around them they see indicators of care or lack of care by those who designed their outdoor spaces."
The importance of play environments has been well studied, and inspiring models of natural and enriching play environments exist. What the schoolyard movement adds is the possibility of blending play and teaching. There's no reason learning shouldn't be fun. For the best results, students have to be involved from the beginning, defining and creating their own environment and recreating it every day, as humans are destined to do.
The importance of connecting with nature and of respecting children's human nature provide strong justification for the schoolyard movement, but its third source is what ensures its future: the schoolyard supports teaching and deepens learning. For starters, it facilitates most of what we call the educational reform agenda. If the call for hands-on learning begs the question, "hands on what?", the answer is right outside the door. For inquiry-based science, questions abound in the schoolyard: What lives here? Where did the weeds come from? What makes the clouds? For social studies, What used to be here before it was a school? What do our street names mean?
"After we began our garden, all kinds of connections to the curriculum presented themselves," says Linda Williams of the Arlington Science Focus School. An ongoing outdoor project such as a garden provides a context that the class can return to again and again, providing continuity. Interdisciplinary teaching comes naturally, as do team projects.
Reese explains that the casual approach to Expedition Days helps teachers "relax into the mode of being one of a community of learners. Instead of the adult having to have all the answers, they instead model how to be a learner."
When the schoolyard truly becomes an extension of the classroom, teachers move easily among indoor and outdoor activities, bringing in samples to study under the microscope, generating ideas for library research, reading stories that illuminate our relationship with nature, or collecting data to share on the Internet.
Beyond the Curriculum
Equally important to teachers are the meta-curricular benefits of schoolyard projects. "I knew the math connections would be there," says Linda Williams, "but I delighted in the thinking skills as students planned, compared, sorted, predicted and analyzed. Best of all, though, was the character lesson in patience and perseverance, which paid off when my students came back in September to find the `totally awesome' 8-foot sunflowers they had started from seeds in April."
"We've found that kids who are `hyper' or otherwise difficult to deal with in the classroom often flourish in the outdoor setting," says Mary Rita Prah, resource teacher at Oakridge Elementary. Put more generally, the schoolyard provides opportunities for children with a wide range of learning skills. In Tuckahoe's Expedition Days, one emotionally troubled child gained a reputation as an artist and a bird expert. Both physically and mentally handicapped children benefit from opportunities to manipulate the natural environment and especially to nurture.
Arlington has seen a tremendous influx of immigrant families, and teachers at schools such as Glencarlyn Elementary have found schoolyard projects to be a way to engage non-English speaking students.
"We chose environmental science as part of our instructional initiative," says Glencarlyn Principal Chris Sutton, "because it lends itself to hands-on learning. We didn't anticipate that schoolyard projects would become a stimulus for community building."
Sutton explains that each grade level has responsibility for a particular garden or other part of the courtyard. A pond and garden club meets on early release days to clean and maintain the student-built pond. Kindergartners raise crickets to feed the frogs. The Vietnamese custodian brings aquatic plants and expertise. With schoolyard gardens, Glencarlyn has found a way to attract otherwise reticent immigrant parents. Indeed, gardening is a wonderful platform for multicultural education, as the crops, herbs and flowers display both our cultural differences and our universal agrarian heritage.
Perhaps the schoolyard movement bespeaks a deep desire to restore for our children something we know is missing in their lives. As their world becomes more and more dominated by asphalt and electrons and constrained by adult fears, the schoolyard may emerge as the community's shrine to the importance of nature in their lives, an oasis in the urbanized environment where both children and adults can develop stewardship skills, nurture each other and touch ancestral home.
This article was written by Stephen R. Coffee, Executive Director of Arlingtonians for a Clean Environment, which has hosted the grassroots program, "Rediscovering the Schoolyard", since 1994. It was originally published in the Virginia Journal of Education, March 1998.