In Decatur, high schoolers tend to their herd of miniature goats. In Gainesville, preschoolers pump water to irrigate their garden. In Roswell, third graders build forts from sticks. And in Marietta, kids can identify birds in the woods without ever having studied a field guide. They’re all students in the growing number of Atlanta-area schools where kids go outside to learn.

Confidence Learned in the Woods

Melissa Reid, Director of Schools for Elachee Nature Academy believes starting early is key in building a connection to nature: “Between the ages of 3 and 5, children begin to develop fears of the unknown. If we get them out in the woods before these fears develop, children will cherish the outdoor world around them.”

Jas Darland with the Garden School in Marietta also credits Richard Louv’s landmark book, Last Child in the Woods: Saving our Children from Nature-Deficit Disorder, for inspiring research that encourages outdoor schooling. Jay Underwood, Head of School at High Meadows, thinks that the current research has “honed in to what our founders knew in 1973 – that kids need to experience, question, touch, smell and feel things to create lasting learning.”

In his book, Louv sets out the host of issues kids face as they spend less time playing outside, including a higher risk of obesity and asthma.

For families that find it tough to add more outdoor time after school, a school with outdoor learning might help lower those risks. Nature-based education can especially help with issues that affect learning, such as attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), or are related to school, including childhood stress.

More Nature = Higher Test Scores

Getting kids outside to learn can actively improve academic performance. The American Institutes for Research reported in 2005 that students in outdoor science programs improved their science testing scores by 27 percent. When Louv visited Chattahoochee Hills Charter School in Fulton County, he found, “The school is showing more academic improvement than any other school in that county.”

Louv also cites a six-year study of 905 elementary schools. The ones that incorporated more nature reported higher scores on standardized testing in English and math, leading the researchers to suggest, as he says, “greening our schools may be one of the most cost-effective ways to raise student test scores.”

All of the schools we spoke with mentioned hands-on, or experiential, learning as a key reason their program resonates with kids.

At the preschool level, Reid with Elachee Nature Academy says, “Having hands-on access to nature at an early age instills a sense of confidence to help children problem-solve without as much parent intervention.”

A Big Benefit of Greening

While STEM (science, technology engineering, and math) subjects may seem best suited for outdoor learning, the Children & Nature Network reports 83 percent of school garden studies found improved outcomes across many subjects, including language arts.

Ford Elementary School in Acworth embraces the range of subjects that can be taught in their gardens. In addition to “Greening STEM,” the school also has a Literacy Garden and a Pathway to Freedom Word Garden. Academe of the Oaks went from planting corn to making tortillas, and learned about everything from pollination to cultural anthropology along the way.

Unstructured play – and a certain degree of risk – also factor large in green schools.

Darland says the adults at their school observe a “strong desire for risk and adventure” among their students, and give them space to meet that need. In return, she sees students who are, “enthusiastic, confident, happier, powerful and compliant.”

At Arabia Mountain High School in Lithonia, students explore and study their community in the Arabia Mountain Heritage Area, 40,000 acres that encompasses not just natural areas, but schools, homes and businesses, too. Using the EIC Model™, described as “using the Environment as an Integrating Context for learning,” students participate in service-learning opportunities and community service projects that help them understand the impact they can make on their community.

Family Involvement: Key to Success

Anna Doll, a teacher, Master Gardener Extension Volunteer, and leader of the Green Team at Cumming Elementary School in Forsyth County, found another way to integrate community and caring into their outdoor classroom. Sixty percent of the school’s families qualify for free or reduced school meals. She offered a plot to any family who would commit to maintaining and harvesting it over the summer. She reports, “It was a great success! Eight families farmed 30 raised beds and were able to provide hundreds of pounds of fresh, organic fruits and vegetables for their families and neighbors.”

Engaging parents can be key to a school’s success with going green. Ford Elementary draws on a team of more than 50 volunteer “Earth Parents” to teach in their outdoor classrooms.

Even recess is getting greener. Outdoor learning environments encourage a shift away from playspaces filled with manufactured or artificial materials in favor of natural surfaces, objects and obstacles.

The Natural Learning Initiative (naturallearning.org) hopes to inspire more of these spaces, and provides information on everything from using pressure treated wood to growing edible vines. The Green Schoolyards for Healthy Communities is another initiative working toward the same goal.

Andrea Timpone, president of Elachee Nature Science Center, sums it up: “A nature-based educational experience combines the very best in learning opportunities –  it’s hand-on, student-driven, inquiry and problem-solving based and builds social skills including teamwork. And it builds understanding, appreciation and value of our natural world.”

– Helen Newling Lawson

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