One group of 4-year-olds carefully examined Torpedo the Box Turtle’s house for signs of life. A few feet away, another group gathered around a small pond to look for swimming turtles. After a few moments, the students raced away to check out other spots around St. Martin’s Episcopal School’s outdoor nature classroom.
“There’s a lot of exploration and discovery out here,” said Elizabeth Beckwith, the science lab teacher at St. Martin’s. “So many children who live in the city don’t jump in leaves. They don’t dig for worms in the dirt. They don’t plant tomato plants. We do all that.”
Welcome to the outdoor classroom, a place where nature studies can meet nature, science class can meet gardening and teachers and students alike can get a breath of fresh air.
Outdoor classrooms come in all shapes and sizes, from the plant-and-animal-filled area at St. Martin’s in Brookhaven to the stage and benches in the woods behind Warren T. Jackson Elementary in Buckhead where music teacher Zach White can teach his class to the small butterfly garden and soon-to-be vegetable plots being developed to allow students Ison Springs Elementary in Sandy Springs to grow fresh vegetables.
As Beckwith watched her students run and dig and climb one recent morning, she stood calmly at the center of the lawn and held Buttercup the corn snake, who is part of the menagerie that lives in Beckwith’s classroom. Students walked up to the zookeeper-turned-teacher for a chance to pet Buttercup and stroke her scales.
“Don’t hurt her,” one student said.
“I would never hurt her,” Beckwith responded.
St. Martin’s outdoor nature classroom, built in 2005, has been certified by the National Wildlife Federation as a wildlife refuge. But Beckwith sees it as something more. She sees a place where her young charges can actually touch nature.
“Children aren’t going outside much anymore,” she said. “They may be on their jet skis on the water, but they’re not out exploring the lake. This is important work because we’re establishing a respect for nature that they wouldn’t get otherwise.”
Beckwith grew up in the nearby Silver Lake community, she said, and grew up playing in the lake and woods. She remembers keeping a pet she called Newty the Newt. Her students now often don’t have the same chances she had to get close to nature.
“So many of the children, especially in the city, don’t have a back yard,” she said. “In order to inspire a passion for the natural world, they need to be exposed to it at a young age.”
At Ison Springs, teacher Gayle White wants the school’s new outdoor classroom to be a place where students not only get their hands dirty, but also learn about the food they eat.
Parent volunteers now are building small garden plots for classes at Ison Springs. White hopes that soon those cinder-block-sided plots will sprout tomatoes, basil and other herbs and vegetables the students can use in class.
What will they do with their produce? “We’re going to eat it,” she said.
That’s part of the point, she said. The gardens will show students that food doesn’t only come from the grocery store.
“The kids, they need to take better care of themselves,” she said. “They need to have more knowledge of what’s nutritionally good for them. They’ll learn about sustainability. These are lessons they’ll carry throughout their lives. All they do is play video games and talk on their cellphones.”
Beckwith said meeting outside makes a class seem special.
“It’s a totally different learning environment with totally different sights and sounds,” Beckwith said. “I feel like [students] actually pay attention better outside. Sitting in the gazebo for a lesson, they really do listen, because it’s different. It’s not the same old thing.”
Elsewhere in Sandy Springs, students at the First Montessori School of Atlanta head to the school’s outdoor classroom to learn about nature.
“During structured learning, we talk about trees, plants and how everything in nature is interconnected,” said Chris Cone, a lower elementary school teacher. “During unstructured time, students might play in a stream bed, work on social skills within a group, decide how they might want to clear a stream or something like that. There are so many levels of learning that can take place outside.”
The school varies its outdoor curriculum based on the seasons.
“The outdoor market provides such a rich, wonderful palette. A classroom, if you will,” said Jerri King, head of the school. “I can’t think of anything you can’t bring to life in the outdoors.”
In Buckhead, Warren T. Jackson Elementary School offers several outside places teachers can take their classes. The school has vegetable gardens, a classroom that uses stumps for seats in one part of the forested school grounds and a stage with benches for an audience in another. There’s a nature trail, too.
One recent morning, Catherine Cleary’s third grade class gathered in the outdoor classroom to hear parent Archana Nair read “Sparrow Girl” and several other books. It was the group’s first trip outside for class this year, the teacher said. “The kids were so excited,” she said. “They wanted to sit in every seat.”
Parent Rebecca Harrigan, the Jackson PTA’s outdoor classroom chairwoman , watched from one side. Traffic sounded in the distance, but here, just a few hundred yards from the urban school, students sat on seats cut from the trunks of fallen trees, rustled the leaves beneath their feet and listened to the story Nair was reading.
“You can’t really tell you’re in the middle of the city,” Harrigan said.
Sylvia Small contributed to this story.