Enviro Education network offers guidelines for taking learning outdoors this fall

Eric Jimenez-Pool (right) and Archie Charian work on their art projects while sitting six feet apart at Veltus Park during their Summer Success class in late June.
Chelsea Self / Post Independent

An approach that’s been in practice for many years in the realm of environmental education — the outdoor classroom — could be more broadly applied this fall.

Recently, the Colorado Alliance for Environmental Education (CAEE), including its area affiliate, Carbondale-based WildRose Education, came up with guidelines for making better use of outdoor spaces to teach students.

Outdoor learning could become a crucial component to pre-K-12 education in the coronavirus era, as schools come up with unique ways to safely resume in-person learning while maintaining proper health precautions.

Whether that takes place on school grounds, or out in the community in parks and other outdoor spaces, the possibilities are endless, said Sarah Johnson, WildRose founder and watershed educator.

“As schools deliberate on how best to move forward during the fall semester, I encourage administrators and teachers to leverage the tremendous expertise of environmental educators to work with their students, design their outdoor teaching plans, and offer teachers support in teaching and learning outdoors,” Johnson said.

Schools of all kinds, public and private, are busy this summer trying to devise plans to safely reopen to students come August and September with public health considerations in mind to keep the spread of COVID-19 in check.

CAEE in late June released online guidance on how to reopen schools this fall, providing resources for individual schools and school districts to tap into if they want to cut down on the number of students who are inside buildings at a given time.

The downloadable document includes dozens of strategies on how to effectively use outdoor classrooms, as well as tips for teachers on how to teach outdoors while adhering to social distancing requirements.

It also offers tips on how to incorporate environmental and outdoor education into the coursework, regardless of the subject, while making use of those outdoor spaces.

The program was developed in collaboration with the North American Association for Environmental Education (NAAEE), explained Katie Navin, executive director for the Colorado Alliance.

“As soon as COVID hit, we began having conversations with our community partners and environmental educators about coming up with some creative solutions for how could support schools,” Navin said.

“There will be countless challenges for schools when it comes to reopening, but that can happen in a lot of different ways using the natural phenomena that surrounds us.”

Those outdoor spaces can be used for the most academic of subjects — reading, math and social studies, for instance — as well as subjects that are naturally suited to the outdoors, such as science and art, Navin said.

“There are any degree of possibilities,” she said. “In many cases you’re literally just doing the exact same thing outdoors as you would indoors.”

The approach can also be used to support home schoolers, Johnson said. 

Wild Rose Education has shared a full menu of virtual educator professional development offerings this summer that teachers and curriculum development teams can use.

“Some teachers are more confident taking students outside, and just need some support to be able to do that,” Johnson said. “A lot of teachers are hungry for more training on best practices to feel confident and make it safe for their students.”

Specific teacher training is offered for course work in river science, watershed geography, youth civic engagement, public lands and “Leave No Trace” skills.

The courses include continuing education credits, and some offer graduate credits from Western Colorado University and the Colorado School of Mines, Johnson added.

Also, the 2020 Youth Water Leadership Program offers teenagers virtual learning opportunities during the upcoming fall semester. Because the program is now taught virtually, it has expanded to include school throughout the entire Upper Colorado River Basin.

Many schools in the Roaring Fork Valley have been offering outdoor education for many years, with support from groups like the Roaring Fork Conservancy and the Aspen Center for Environmental Studies, Johnson noted.

But the current situation presents even more opportunities to maximize the outdoor classroom, she said.

Johnson pointed to one summer school program, Summit 54’s “Summer Success” for upcoming first through fifth graders, which quickly adapted to move its classes outdoors this year, as an example.

Schools in the Roaring Fork Valley and across the Western Slope do have what Johnson refers to as a “rural advantage” when it comes to outdoor learning.

“We do have more open space in towns, and we’re more spread out,” she said. “And, we’re not afraid to take kids outside.”

That’s not to say urban schools can’t make use of outdoor spaces for learning, Navin pointed out.

“It does look different,” she said. “The environment is where we live, and learning what there is to know about that.

“And, there are some fantastic examples of urban schools creating outdoor learning spaces,” she said, pointing to schools that have created raised garden beds on asphalt playgrounds, and other similar projects.

As stated in the eeGuidance, “[EE] organizations can and should be essential partners in supporting schools and families as states begin to reopen schools.

“As with any strategy, these recommendations are not without hurdles, nor will they fully address all of the challenges facing schools,” states the eeGuidance document. “But, environmental and outdoor education programs present some promising tools for schools and districts throughout the U.S. and are essential partners in creating a more just and sustainable future for all.”

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