Hands-on learning: Creating outdoor classroom spaces

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Updated Jun 21, 2019
Photo: Out TeachPhoto: Out Teach

One of the big green industry topics professionals are focusing on nowadays is how to get more students involved and interested in careers in these fields.

Experts agree that one of the best ways to spread the word about what all the green industry can offer is to get involved with local schools to provide hands-on learning experiences that show them what being part of the green industry is all about.

If your landscaping company has ever considered trying to find ways to get involved with local school systems to spread the word about what you do and why it’s important, take a look at what one organization is doing across the country to get the word out there in a fun and interactive way.

Hands-on learningTlc Part One

Since the need to spread the word about what green industry professionals actually do is on the rise, Out Teach, a non-profit organization, has stepped up to this challenge by working with low-income elementary schools and school districts to create outdoor classrooms, dubbed outdoor learning labs by the organizers, that bring learning experiences to life.

“At Out Teach, we believe that an outdoor learning lab can be taken outside and you can create an enriching experience for students,” says Evan Dintaman, landscape architect and senior manager of projects and partnerships with Out Teach in the Mid-Atlantic region.“What makes our organization really neat is that we actually don’t only design and help build outdoor classroom space, but we also train teachers and do a professional development program on how to actually utilize those spaces all across the curriculum.”

Dintaman says that one unique aspect about Out Teach is that not only are the math and science classes incorporated into the curriculum, but also English, history, language arts, dance and more.

“We find that both students and teachers are more engaged in the subject matter, and the outdoor space is a great place to collect data, experiment and do that real hands-on, outdoor learning,” he says. “We think you can teach anything in the outdoor gardens.”

Photo: Out TeachPhoto: Out Teach

Regardless of what subject they teach, Dintaman says each participating teacher will receive one-on-one training with an Out Teach member to help them understand how they can properly teach their subject matter in the outdoor learning labs.

“I still remember the last lesson I did with my coach watching a parts of the plant lesson,” Gaby Lopez, second grade teacher with Sope Creek Elementary School in Marietta, Georgia, told Out Teach. “By reviewing the parts of a plant by identifying their importance, we gave my English to Speakers of Other Languages (ESOL) students a wealth of new vocabulary and word usage. And they really responded to comparing the functions of different parts of the plants to parts of the human body – which part is breathing?  Which part is drinking? How is it moving nutrients?  It’s all so much more meaningful and relevant in the real world.”

Preparation process

Dintaman says the preparation process for these outdoor classrooms begins with an application process where all interested schools can apply for the program, as well as the professional development program.

Once Out Teach interviews and finds the schools that they deem a good fit for the program, the organization holds two events called the Student Design Challenge and the Design and Dine. At the Student Design Challenge, every student in the school has the opportunity to draw their ideas for an outdoor space, and they are encouraged to be as creative as they want to be.

“We want all students to have the opportunity to express themselves and get their thoughts heard,” says Dintaman.

After this, Dintaman says a handful of students are chosen and invited to meet with the teachers and community members that are involved at the Design and Dine event. At this event, the three landscape architects on staff with Out Teach will take these submitted design ideas and work to create an overall vision of the outdoor space while at the event.

From there, Dintaman says he then creates a master plan that takes into account the available space at the school, the budget, sun exposure, topography, drainage, etc. to make sure they are creating a space that can be easily maintained and set up for success from the very start.

Participation and maintenance

Once the plans are finalized, Dintaman says he then takes these plans and a set of construction documents that will go to permit through the county and school district.

Once these permits are acquired, licensed contractors will come to the site and build any components of the project that required permitting. When these are all complete, the group will then hold another event called the Big Dig, which invites teachers, students and community members from the area to volunteer their time to install all of the other non-permitted elements of the outdoor classroom, such as mulch, plants, drainage stones or gravel.

Photo: Out TeachPhoto: Out Teach

When choosing plants for the space, Dintaman says they take into account which plants are native to the area and try to stick mainly with these options, as it can help cut down on maintenance.

“Teachers’ lives are busy and school district lives are really busy, so we try to make it as low-maintenance as possible by using plants that don’t need a ton of extra water,” he says. “Once they are established, they can usually sustain themselves.”

Since each outdoor classroom space can range anywhere from 2,000 sq. ft. to 5,000 sq. ft., Dintaman says that each classroom could potentially have anywhere from two to four different types of gardens present, such as a butterfly garden, rain garden, meadow garden, perennial garden, herb garden and raised beds with fruits and vegetables.

“We try to incorporate as many different small garden environments as we can to create an immersive, large scale outdoor classroom space,” he says.

As far as maintenance is concerned, Dintaman says a lot has changed over the years. When the organization first started off, he says maintenance fell to the school districts and the school itself, but more recently the group has seriously considered partnering with local professional landscapers to try and lend a hand with routine maintenance.

“As the industry for outdoor classrooms and school gardens grows, I think along with it is growing the industry for school garden maintenance,” he says. “I think school garden maintenance takes on a totally different look than professional landscape maintenance, but I think school garden maintenance could fill a lot of gaps in scheduling that professional landscape maintenance crews might have.”

Check back tomorrow for part two, where we’ll talk about what professional landscapers can do to get involved with local schools and see the impact these projects can have on students. 

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