On Tuesday morning, a group of about 14 sixth-graders sat in small groups on stumps behind Maple Street School in Hopkinton. Each student had a notepad and worksheet, and was engrossed in an ecosystem lesson that allowed them to identify living and non-living objects that could be found within walking distance of the location. where they were sitting, in the cool morning mist of the schoolyard.
Sixth-grade teacher Amy Rothe distributed the students to search for the objects – a bird, a berry, a caterpillar, a spider web, an acorn, a feather – around the playground, at the foot of the trees, in nearby garden beds. and in the wooded area next to the fence.
It wasn’t recess, it was their class.
Maple Street School has a new outdoor learning space this year, a square lot behind the building that teachers have been using for classes for several weeks, upon registration. For students, who are in 4th, 5th and 6th year, the open-air classroom offers a total change of scenery, a chance to explore nature in an otherwise digital world and also to take an optional mask break, as part of the of Hopkinton’s universal internal masking policy.
“I just saw the need for something more, which would help children enjoy the outdoors and give teachers the opportunity to do things outdoors,” said Rothe, who had the idea of the classroom. “When COVID happened, we saw the need to give children more room to breathe, so to speak. ”
The open-air classroom is divided into four quadrants with nine stump seats in each, lined with wood chips and separated by gravel walkways, an arrangement that allows for a smooth transition from full class discussions to small work. groups. There is a whiteboard that teachers can deploy and a plan is underway to install a shade sail for sunny days.
Principal Amy Doyle says she was a fan of the idea from the start, as the outdoor classroom would provide a ventilated but structured space for learning during COVID-19.
“In the long run, what we’ve learned from the pandemic is that there is a lot that can be done outside and kids really enjoy this time in the fresh air and in the sun,” but they can engage and they can still be captivated by the attention, ”Doyle said.
Outdoors, Doyle said, students can do real-world applications of classroom concepts and write about what they see, smell and experience in nature.
“We know about kids, they make that connection in their brains when they’re engaged and really feel inspired and connected to something,” Doyle said. “You can do it in the classroom, but being outside also gives kids unique and new opportunities to do it, which only takes their learning to another level. “
Rothe said it also strengthens appreciation for nature.
“I think it puts them more in touch with the environment, it inspires them to be stewards of their environment and their community,” Rothe said. “It teaches them to respect the school and the grounds.”
Many school districts have embraced outdoor classrooms during the COVID-19 pandemic. In Stoddard, James Faulkner Elementary School made extensive use of open-air forest classrooms during the 2020-21 school year, and continues this year, having first cleaned up the growth of plants that was accumulated over the summer. Concord schools continue to use outside frame tents with folding tables and chairs for class whenever possible.
In many ways, the Hopkinton project was a community effort. The Hopkinton PTA and the Hopkinton Education Foundation provided funds to build the classroom, and last year’s sixth grade class donated for the raised garden beds. The Hopkinton OlkonenEarthscapes company executed Rothe’s design and provided many materials, while the Henniker HPP Inc. and Stonefalls Gardens companies donated bark chips for the classroom floor and plants for the beds. raised.
This summer, the school also installed around 12 garden boxes around the perimeter of the backyard which Rothe says will be adopted by classes who will use it to grow vegetables and complete a farm-to-table type project where the vegetables are then used in school snacks and lunches.
“I think a lot of kids take it for granted that their parents just go to the grocery store and get their food,” Rothe said. “I want to give them experiences of growing their own food and learning how to grow organically so that they can maybe take it home and inspire their families to incorporate vegetables into their diets if they don’t. not already, and to feel the owners of what they put in their body.
Rothe’s inspiration for the backyard garden boxes came from a pre-existing garden at the front of the school, which was started over seven years ago by school secretary Tracy Martin and includes herbs, vegetables, grapes, a peach tree and a chicken coop. This garden served as an outdoor learning space long before COVID, and a way for students to see firsthand where their food is coming from. The school also has a garden-related composting program, where students learn the concepts of reduce, reuse, recycle, and reuse (and rot!) In backyard bins.
Rothe hopes the new Maple Street classroom will serve as inspiration.
“This is new to us and hopefully will inspire other schools in the district and other schools to do the same,” she said.