Years ago, my students decided to participate in a national competition. This competition required us to take on an environmental problem and develop sustainable strategies to combat the problem, as well as help others to learn. As we dove into this project, we realized creating a space to provide learning outside would be necessary. After lots of searching, meeting, and convincing, we were granted use of an under-utilized outdoor space. Our Outdoor Learning Environment (OLE) was born.
Our OLE includes a seasonal stream fed by rain and parking lot run-off (through underground drains), and an adjacent strip of land. To develop this space to meet our needs, we had to remove the grass on the land and then build a native plant garden. We added planter boxes, pathways, and a variety of trees, shrubs, and bulbs – all native to our area. The stream needed more work and required a grant to fund the major overhaul. Because the work we were doing would improve the quality of the stream, we qualified for a city grant and received it to make the changes.
If you develop an OLE on your campus, here are some things to keep in mind:
Location, location, location – How far is the space from your classroom? What route will your students take to get there? What else is around the OLE? My classroom is probably the farthest room on campus from the OLE. As such, there are several routes we could take to get there. Through trial and error I have found the best route to create the least distraction and mess getting my students from our classroom to the OLE and back.
Access to water – If you are going to have plants or any investigations involving water, you need to have access to a spigot.
Safety – Have a plan for fire alarms and Lockdown drills. If you are outside, where do you go? Also, remember to let the office know when you will be in your OLE.
Maintenance – Growing learning spaces need to be maintained. At the beginning of the year, we schedule a large-scale OLE clean up day to prepare for the new projects. Without students walking through in the summer, our native plants go crazy! The clean up day includes trimming, weeding, and general clean up of the space. We invite older students and parents to help as the task seems overwhelming every year.
An OLE does not have to be extravagant. Find a place to take your students outside and enjoy the learning!