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A few months ago, the published results of a four-year demonstration study of 40,000 children across South West England conducted by Plymouth University, found both students and teachers to be happier, more engaged in the learning process, and more enthusiastic about coming to school after spending time in outdoor environments.

The study adds to a long list of published reports on the Children and Nature network that correlate outdoor classrooms with social and cognitive benefits: improved test scores and attendance, better student behavior and attitudes toward school, alleviation of ADHD symptoms, increased physical activity, and greater connection with living things and natural cycles. So important is outdoor learning in Scandinavia, in fact, they even have a term – udeskole – to describe a learning model characterized by regular, compulsory educational activities outside of school.

Let’s give the Europeans their due. Friedrich Froebel, the German educator credited with established the first kindergarten around 1840, thought of the outdoors as an obvious and natural classroom for young children, and the proliferation of forest kindergartens in Europe owe a debt to his work. But, today, outdoor classrooms can be found far and wide. Here’s a look at some of the best.

Fuji Kindergarten
Fuji Kindergarten outside Tokyo, designed by Tezuka Architects, has the look of a modern-day coliseum. The school’s rooftop playground sits above a ring of classrooms. Skylights look down into wall-less classrooms; trees push through apertures in the planked wooden roof and are strung with hammocks; a vertical handrail at the roof’s edge has bars spaced just far enough apart to meet Japanese building codes while allowing kids to swing their legs freely. And just look at these smiling kids.

A central tenet of Takaharu Tezuka’s design philosophy is that anything can be a toy: handwashing stations, water pumps, earthen mounds, simple wooden boxes that double as classroom furniture and train cars. Exposure to surrounding noise and cold air, the freedom to move with relatively few boundaries, even an element of danger, are intentional choices on Tezuka’s part. As he says in a TED Talk espousing the school’s case as world’s best kindergarten: “My point is don’t control them. Don’t protect them too much. They need to tumble some times. They need to get some injuries; that makes them learn how to live in this world.”

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Fuji Kindergarten

Walderkindergarten
Not a single school, but a model found across Europe, Walderkindergarten, literally fore kindergarten, has grown increasingly popular over the last decade. Children ages 2-6 come to school dressed for whatever the season demands. The forest provides the materials—acorns, leaves, bark—and children learn by using these remnants for dramatic play, science experiments, math, and self-directed inquiry. Early-childhood teacher Andrea Mills, who relocated to the United States after living in Zurich, Switzerland, recalls the benefits of Walderkindergarten in an excellent Edutopia article:

“At the school my son attended, the day begins with an hour’s hike into the Wald—German for “forest”—where students spend most of the day exploring around a circular structure known as the Waldsofa, or (you guessed it) forest couch. It’s a roofless shelter consisting of walls made from sticks that surround benches arranged in a circle.

The group takes its time reaching the waldsofa, with the children setting the pace. Frozen raindrops to examine, or muddy hills to slide down, warrant a delay; teachers are mindful of learning opportunities. Singing and laughter abound, but all are serious about safety: There’s no running with sticks and no wandering out of sight, among other rules.”

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Walderkindergarten, Denmark

Toronto Blaydon Public School
If what teachers at Blaydon Public School in Toronto are witnessing at the school’s outdoor classroom bears weight, spending more time outside may be changing the way students, including those with autism, learn and behave.

According to an article in the Toronto Star, students at the school spend at least 75 minutes a day outside in a staff- and volunteer-assembled playground of stump seats, log benches, and other simple natural structures. They play dress-up, make snow angels, study worms, and then build on what they learn in the classroom, where teachers are seeing profound improvements in literacy and reasoning. “They are learning by leaps and bounds, and doing nothing but ask questions,” kindergarten teacher Maria Crowther told the Star.

Chicago Botanic Garden, Regenstein Learning Campus
Author Richard Louv coined the term “nature-deficit disorder” to describe the consequences of an absence of nature in children’s lives; through its innovative Regenstein Learning Campus, the Chicago Botanic Garden aims to close this education gap. Opened in September, a multisensory discovery garden forms the gateway to a new 12-classroom Learning Center for students to investigate plants and pollinators. Renowned landscape designer Mikyoung Kim provided the concept vision, which Jacobs/Ryan Associates adapted to incorporate native plants, and local and sustainable materials.

The Nature Play Garden features sugar maple, aspen, and redbud groves, an expansive lawn that gently slopes downward with sculpted landforms, a willow tunnel, and “rooms” of arborvitaes and hornbeam. Natural landforms, large boulders, and mown paths allow even the smallest children to freely explore the area. Children enrolled in the center’s preschool and programs such as My First Camp and Little Diggers observe how plants respond to seasonal changes; discover a myriad of insects and animals that dwell in this habitat; crawl through and over hollow trees; listen to wind rustling tree leaves; create structures with pinecones, sticks, and stones; run up and down hills; and splash in streams. It is truly an inspiring space.

Abington Friends School
How do you design an outdoor discovery playground for a school in a way that is ecologically sustainable, environmentally aware, and educationally rich? The Abington Friends School nature playground in Jenkingtown, Pennsylvania offers a compelling roadmap. A team of parents and professionals that included botanist Jeanne McMindes, landscape architect Bernard Panzak, science teacher Jim Pierson and outside director Rosanne Mistretta developed the concept sketch and hired Metcalfe Architecture & Design and Viridian Landscape Studio, both of Philadelphia, to design the play space and bring it to life.

The $650,000 Headwaters Discovery Playground at the ambitious Quaker school includes two wooden fort towers, rope bridges, a slide, goat path and Goric Farm Pumps that turn dry basins into fresh ponds. A natural stage of boulders and tall grasses invites children to play with abandon, explore the outdoors and discover lessons in nature for themselves.  As Head of School Rich Nourie told a large crowd at the dedication ceremony in September: “We believe the experience of the natural world is absolutely essential for children’s development.” He called the opening of the new playground for children in grades one though eight “a signature day” in the life of the School.

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Headwaters Discovery Playground at Abington Friends School

While this list barely scratches the surface of what is out there, we hope it provides inspiration. Earlier this year, a National Geographic article noted that advances in neuroscience and psychology have provided scientists with more tools to look at the way nature affects our brains and bodies. Assuming the evidence keeps moving in the direction it has, more educators may soon be holding class outside—and doing so with the support of their administrators.

 

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