Learning can take place anywhere, including the outdoors. Many schools across Near North District School Board (NNDSB) have outdoors classrooms to enhance the student educational experience. With the initiative of a teacher and the support of a community, Phelps Central Public School now joins the list.
Ali Steer, a Grade 7/8 teacher at Phelps Central PS organized and led a team of volunteers and building supply donors who helped create two outdoor learning spaces where students can connect and be in nature while learning, all while adhering to public health measures.
Since their recent completion, both spaces have been used by most of the school community.
“This project’s completion is an exciting addition to our school and will set the tone for the importance of nature in the mental health and well-being of students, inspiring learning through nature, and getting our students outside more,” touted Steer.
Of course, these new learning spaces would not be possible without the generosity of local business: Richard (Pete) Renaud from R.J. Construction installed two four-season whiteboard structures; all supplies required for these structures were donated to the school by Paul Gagne from Carry All Home Building North Bay; and Jonathan Crockford at Eagle Tree and Landscaping Services generously donated the mulch flooring and log seating for both primary and junior/intermediate classrooms, which have slightly different designs.
“It was really moving to be met with such generosity from the community,” said Steer. “I was almost emotional hearing that these builders were just like, ‘yep, here you go’ and providing hundreds of dollars’ worth of supplies. To have 100 per cent of the time and materials donated was just fantastic. And I think it’s powerful for the students to also experience or understand the power of community coming together that people are willing to gift them this experience for their own education. That’s powerful, too.”
The recent completion of the project is just in time for Take Me Outside day, which is this Wednesday, Oct. 20. It’s a day that raises awareness about outdoor learning by encouraging teachers to take their students outside for at least an hour.
All school subjects can be taught outside.
“We’re doing all subjects outside. From language, math, geography, science, and certainly music,” said Steer. “Outdoor experiential learning is very powerful for most students because it taps into most learning styles. So, when we’re outside, we have more space to use movement, to use tangible objects and manipulatives in a way that’s freeing for the students outside of the four walls of the classroom. For example, we’ve had compass tutorials outside for a geography class where students can do pacing with their compass and understand direction, and orientation. Another example is that we’ve had art lessons where we’re out collecting and identifying species and then bringing those items either back to the classroom or creating arrays and tying in radial symmetry to our math lessons on fractions. There are a lot of opportunities for cross-curricular teaching as well, with the outdoors and it comes more naturally that way.”
Steer said her previous career has provided a unique perspective for student engagement.
“My background in outdoor education and wilderness therapy has prepared me for this because, for years, I’ve understood the importance of having children outside and the power of nature. So, their innate connection to being outside and how it makes them feel good mentally, spiritually, emotionally, and physically. There are so many benefits to learning outside, so why not just tie all the pieces of the curriculum into outdoor experiences to the best of my ability to enhance their learning opportunity? My experience as an outdoor facilitator means that I have a lot of back pocket activities and ways to gather attention, engage students, empower them and there are lots of leadership opportunities outside as well.
“Children want to be outside, they asked to be outside. So being able to facilitate that and link that outside time, which in their minds is usually linked to recess or play, to learning is powerful. They get the pleasure of being outside and all the benefits of having fresh air, sunlight, and tactile things to learn with. I think for students to see that they can be outside and enjoy their surroundings while learning is key,” said Steer.
The students are excited about the outdoor learning spaces.
“The fresh air really helps me concentrate because I feel very grounded and relaxed. It really helps me clear my thoughts,” said Lilly-May, a Grade 8 student.
Echoing their classmate, Rylli noted, “The outdoor classroom is very nice and calming.”
“I think the outdoor classroom is amazing because students get to take off their masks and get some fresh air. And, because I take mental breaks outside which are great,” noted Marcus, a Grade 7 Student.
NNDSB extends a big thank you to all donors and community members who continue to support student learning across the district.