Getting involved: How your company can participate in outdoor classroom design

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Photo: Out TeachPhoto: Out Teach

We talked yesterday about the importance of getting students involved in the green industry and how you as a professional landscaper can lend a hand by partnering with groups like Out Teach, a non-profit organization that helps build outdoor classroom spaces.

Today, we’ll take a look at what you need to do if your company decides to try and get more involved in your local schools to help maintain these spaces, as well as what students can learn about the green industry by working in these spaces daily.

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For landscapers wanting to get more involved with schools and get their names out into the community, Evan Dintaman, landscape architect and senior manager of projects and partnerships with Out Teach in the Mid-Atlantic region, says maintaining an outdoor classroom area could prove to be the perfect solution.

The first step he recommends is finding an organization like Out Teach that has already established a connection and relationship with your local school district, as they will be more willing to work with and help the organization than a random person asking to be involved.

Dintaman adds that organizations like these will also already have a running list of schools that are willing and able to participate, which will cut down on your search process.

“School districts often trust the organizations that they’re working with to do school gardens, and if a relationship can be built there, that makes entry into the market a little bit easier,” he says. “School districts often have a lot of requirements regarding background checks of employees and making sure contractors are registered as an approved vendor with the school district.”

The second step he recommends is to go ahead and check the requirements for involvement, fill out the necessary forms, perform any background checks and become an approved vendor. This will help cut down on a lot of clearance time if and when you do get involved with an organization.

Keep in mind that since students will be involved in these spaces every day, certain school districts may have strict regulations regarding the use of pesticides, herbicides and other chemicals. To keep all of this as uncomplicated as possible, Dintaman says Out Teach tries to avoid using these substances unless it is absolutely necessary.

“We view these spaces as not perfectly manicured outdoor landscapes but more as learning laboratories that need to have some problems for students to solve,” he says. “So, a few weeds here and there actually become a good learning tool, or erosion issues actually present a spot for them to take a look and start becoming those experts in stormwater management or start coming up with creative solutions.”

Student involvement

In his time working with Out Teach, Dintaman says he has seen, 100 percent of the time, that students become more engaged, show more interest and utilize their critical thinking skills more once they get outside in the outdoor classroom space.

“It’s totally different from the indoor classroom experience,” he says. “Students immediately engage with their natural surroundings when they get outside. And the ability to pick up concepts happens so much more quickly in the outdoor space when you’re looking at a real-life example of what you’re trying to learn instead of in a textbook or a whiteboard.”

While Dintaman agrees that programs like these would prove beneficial in higher education settings, Out Teach specifically caters to elementary schools to try and get students invested in the green industry as early as possible.

“We feel like (the elementary level is) where the achievement gap as far as student achievement, getting prepared for higher grades, is happening,” he says. “As an organization, we feel that if we can do the professional development on the elementary level, we can start closing that achievement gap and preparing students for higher grades.”

One specific feature Dintaman says Out Teach installs in many of the outdoor spaces is an erosion board or an Earth science area that allows the students the chance to study erosion and look at the effects of runoff. This, he says, gets them involved early on with learning about stormwater management practices.

“It’s amazing to see a fourth grader or fifth grader already thinking critically about how we might slow runoff, capture runoff or filter stormwater,” he says. “They are understanding concepts that are being taught at the college level just by going outside and seeing these kind of green infrastructure problems.”

Dintaman says it’s mandatory as green industry professionals to ensure that a heavy importance is placed on getting kids outside in nature to work on these hands-on projects because there’s no doubt in his mind that what they are participating in now is generating interest in the green industry already.

“Partnering with Out Teach was a strategic decision,” Maisha Riddlesprigger, principal at Ketcham Elementary School in Washington, D.C., told Out Teach. “By providing students with alternatives to ‘sit and get’ in the classroom, we’ve increased student satisfaction, made students feel more connected to the school and made learning fun. And when students are able to apply what they’re learning in a real-world environment like the outdoor learning lab, the content sticks, they understand it more deeply, retain the information longer and are able to apply it to different situations. That shows up on their evaluations.”

Dintaman believes that up until they’ve had the chance to participate in the Out Teach program, many of these teachers and students have never had the opportunity to get involved in a project of this caliber, which makes seeing their excitement during the process and their involvement and willingness to participate exciting for him.

“It’s creating memories that these kids will take on through their careers and their lives, and it’s creating opportunity and equity in education,” he says. “Equity is important in education to make sure that all students, no matter which neighborhood they live in or the city they were born in, have the same opportunities to get outside and have these educational opportunities.”

Currently, Out Teach is located in five different regions across the United States: Georgia, Washington, D.C., Texas, North Carolina and Maryland. To find out more about or become involved with Out Teach or similar organizations, click here.

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