Mask Breaks Reinvent Outdoor Learning

Mask Breaks Reinvent Outdoor Learning
Posted on 09/22/2020
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collage of outdoor learningIf it weren’t for “mask breaks,” Wyandot ECS teacher Alison Brunk may have never discovered just what a “treasure trove” of learning opportunities her school’s outdoor classroom has to offer her first-graders. 


Finding ways to fit in mask breaks this year without too dramatically interrupting the daily flow is a challenge that Brunk and many others across Lakota share, but have overcome with more outdoor learning. Brunk admits that before COVID-19, she was always very intentional about using Wyandot’s outdoor learning space for mostly science-related lessons. But these days, she and her students can be found in the same space multiple times a day and oftentimes during reading and writing time. Based on the daily spread she’s witnessed even beyond the Wyandot’s dedicated outdoor classroom, she can say the same for many of her colleagues.


“[COVID-19] has really encouraged us to be more creative and make this work,” said Brunk, who describes her teaching style as more fluid and flexible than ever. Now, when she sees her students in need of a break or even just a change of scenery, she is much more likely to deviate from her schedule and move a lesson outdoors, for example. 


“The outdoors lends itself to writing so much better than within the walls of my classroom,” she acknowledges. Wyandot first-grader Sylvia Bark concurs. “I really like taking my mask off and writing about all the pretty things,” she says. 


Like other such spaces across Lakota, Wyandot’s outdoor classroom includes a whole host of seating options and tools that encourage exploration and facilitate physical distancing. This includes a vegetable garden that intervention specialist Natalie Bachman started five years ago and has maintained ever since with the help of her students. They grow everything from squash and pumpkins to tomatoes and cucumbers. “A little break to come outside and dig in the dirt really calms [my students] and  helps them refocus on academics. Every day, they find something new to explore,” she said. 


Wyandot Principal Liz Gruber decided it was as good a year as any to invest in the school’s outdoor classroom. With the support of her PTO, she added a new sensory garden as well as seven outdoor tables with umbrellas, enough to give an entire class a workspace. Gruber points out that the visual of classes spread out beyond the outdoor classroom, many of them on beach towels in other spots around the building, is a signal that increased outdoor learning is here to stay. 


This trend stretches beyond Wyandot ECS too. At Shawnee ECS, what started as an amphitheater-type outdoor classroom on the school’s nature trail is expanding to two additional clearings marked by (socially distanced) tree stumps beneath canopies of trees. Principal Kevin Thomas says that beyond a mask break, the spaces give teachers a chance to “build relationships in a mask-free and beautiful environment.”


“Being outside really makes me feel like the ‘old’ way of teaching where I can see my students’ faces and they can see mine,” said Shawnee ECDS kindergarten teacher Devin Hanley


The courtyard at the center of Cherokee Elementary serves as the school’s traditional outdoor learning space, but the school has recently expanded to its playground, where painted spots assist with physical distancing during music class. The school is also clearing out brush and trees next to its bus lot to create an alternate spot for outdoor lessons. 


Even the high schools are finding ways to make outdoor learning more inviting. At Lakota East, the National Honor Society has declared this year’s primary project to be a new outdoor classroom. Similarly, Lakota West is working toward a rehabilitation of one of its courtyards.