Outdoor learning is blooming in Portland

A look at the students roving the outskirts of Portland, Oregon, would make one think they had been there for one thing only – a school trip. Well, this doesn’t seem right. The invigorating environment, though filled with mud, is their actual school. Oregon’s public park houses these students who are willing and ready to learn as soon as parents and guardians drop them off.

Christine Fleener, a teacher, said they’ve always been out there in the field during all seasons. They also seldom build shelters. Amazingly, Fleener’s class, a group of 5th graders, had their biology classes on a meadow. She threw questions at her pupils, who are more than ready to dish out matching answers. She asked Enid, one pupil:

Why do you think it might be adaptive or beneficial to have widened pupils when you’re stressed? 

Enid gave a response that drew a pleasant smile on Fleener’s face. It was just amazing. 4th graders also learned new things while sitting on mere logs. While some thoughtful kids went to action as they tried making a bridge to connect each scattered classroom. Brennan, one of the bridge builders, feels it’s a good thing to equip each student with sharp mental and physical abilities.

When questions are asked about the feeling of the use of sharp objects within the school premises asking if a knife is seen as a tool and not a weapon. The answer it got leaned towards the former as Tony Deis, a founder of Trackers Earth Forest School, threw more light on it. He also explains what the school stands for and its tenets – A classroom with zero walls.

Furthermore, these schools are numerous in Europe and have extended their reach to the United States in the last ten years. They are particularly opened to the young—for example, Tiny Trees preschool in Washington and  Wauhatchie Forest School in Tennessee.

A pupil’s parent, Suzy Lewis-Ship, sounded ecstatic when she laid praises on the outdoor education system. She enrolled her son in the course a few years ago and hadn’t regretted it ever since. Outdoor schools come with a whole new benefit now as the wave of COVID-19 keeps spreading. According to Sharon Danks, the outdoor learning style will help provide each student’s necessary space as the traditional learning buildings failed to deliver. She had been one of the champions of the National COVID-19 Outdoor Learning Initiative.

She also said the idea had earlier been introduced and had been tested over time. It had been put to use during the Spanish Flu pandemics and other cases. She also believes it is the best way to kick-start learning as quickly as possible. If the other segments of our everyday life can lack this necessary adjustment, then so should education. It will be a slow and steady race at first, but it will surely make it back to stability with time.

Challenges facing outdoor learning 

Nevertheless, outdoor learning comes with a handful of challenges and complications that had further threatened to push it back to the background. From weather problems and regulations to budget crises. Private schools in Portland, Oregon, could make adjustments and rectify these complications to an extent. What of the public ones in Portland, Maine? Can they follow the same trend?

This doesn’t stop Maine from embracing the outdoor learning change. As Brooke Teller, an outdoor learning coordinator for Portland Public Schools rightly puts it, outdoor learning throws the students into a world of curiosity previously shielded by the four walls of a learning institution or classroom.

Teller also believes that the outdoor learning style will open up the students to a whole new dimension. They had been locked up for a long time and hadn’t been able to see people in large numbers or be in a congregation. The outdoor learning style will put them at ease and make learning easy. She also said that there are currently over a hundred outdoor learning places in their 17 buildings so far. For now, not all subjects are taught outside. But topics like art help the students enjoy the whole scenery of Mother Nature. This helps them maintain social distancing.

Any support system for these schools?

There had been a flow of supplies from philanthropic organizations in the form of relief funds and donations. Dank also believes that other schools without an outdoor setting can create green classrooms even inside their buildings. Many landscape architects offered their services pro-bono to help achieve this.

In the same vein, Knighton threw a question around the outdoor learning initiative being a product of the nongovernmental effort and not that of the government. Danks laughed it off with this response:

Indeed, indeed, I mean, you know, we wish our government had jumped in last year. We know, we can help.

All in all, it has been a collective effort from the grassroots – that is, teachers and schools ( public or private) coming together in the spirit of unity to share information and resources. Katie West, a teacher in Maine, believes the outdoor learning style is a fantastic experience on its own. Her students had shown their curious and adventurous part. She thinks the Covid-19 pandemic had at least done one thing right – bringing Earth into academics.