Where some people might see overgrown foliage and empty spaces on the grounds of Aspen Community Magnet School, Tina Morris sees untapped potential.
There is the northeast corner of the property, with some trees providing shade, where Morris, the school’s principal, envisions an outdoor learning space. Students could sit in chairs there as teachers instruct them using a portable chalkboard or whiteboard, she said.
On the opposite side of the school, just beyond its football field, is a series of ungroomed trees among a grove of elms that is a popular hangout spot for students. Morris said that’s another area the school intends to turn into a learning space.
She wants to use tree stumps and logs near an abandoned building for a campfire-style setting.
The intent, Morris said, is not just to offer different venues where students can learn every now and then — it’s about providing a more enriching educational experience by using the outdoors as an extension of the classroom.
“It just opens up a whole avenue of learning that engages kids in a way I’ve never seen,” Morris said.
With the state emerging from the fog of the coronavirus pandemic that saw schools essentially shut down for almost a year, outdoor learning is emerging as an important component for school districts trying to comply with health and safety guidelines.
Some administrators also see the pandemic as an opportunity to change the way they educate students, with outdoor learning playing a part.
Fred Trujillo, superintendent of Española Public Schools, said the district is considering using some of the $5.5 million it expects to receive from the latest round of federal stimulus aid to create outdoor learning spaces at each of its 13 schools.
Amy Biehl Community School Principal Felicia Torres said her school will benefit from the outdoor spaces already created for every classroom during the school’s construction. She also will encourage teachers to use the school garden as a means to enhance lesson plans.
Chris Eide, the interim head administrator at Turquoise Trail Charter School, said his school is exploring a project with Meow Wolf to make the grounds more interactive. He said the project would use GPS nodes in certain areas. Administrators and educators will be able to change the information they provide at each site.
“Kids could interact with a tree one day and have a different interaction with the tree the next day,” Eide said.
The outdoor classroom concept also has gained traction in the Legislature. Sen. Siah Correa Hemphill, D-Silver City, introduced Senate Memorial 1, which called for a task force to promote the use of outdoor classrooms. The Senate passed the measure 34-2.
Those actions were music to Eileen Everett’s ears.
Everett has long been an advocate of outdoor education as the executive director of the Environmental Education of New Mexico, a nonprofit organization that promotes environmental and outdoor learning. She sees outdoor classrooms and learning spaces as an essential part of a student’s education.
Everett said it is not a new concept, but it could gain traction because the effects of the pandemic are challenging school leaders to think creatively about how to bring back all students who want in-person learning.
Outdoor education is more than just bringing students outside, she said, adding there are ways for teachers to tie the outdoors to the subjects they are teaching, whether it is science, language arts, math or physical education.
The organization even created outdoor learning guidance that it said the state Public Education Department adopted in the fall to help schools with their reopening plans.
“Outdoor learning is cross-disciplinary and multidisciplinary,” Everett said. “It’s not just one content area, but every subject area that students have to learn about can utilize the outdoors.”
She said students benefit physically, emotionally and socially from outdoor learning, and it improves their overall educational experience.
Everett referred to a report conducted by Stanford University that reviewed outdoor education studies over a 20-year period. It found 90 percent of students reported increased learning skills, and 86 percent said outdoor learning had a positive effect on them.
Some schools even learned how to turn playtime into learning time.
Morris said when Aspen built two new playgrounds, it incorporated educational components. The preschool playground used patterns and colors to help students learn them, while the playground for older children had concrete cylinders, which Morris said could be used to help them learn volume and dimensions.
“That was something the people who came before me who designed these outdoor spaces kept in mind,” Morris said.
Everett said outdoor education also means exploring spaces in and around campuses. Instructors at Journey Montessori School, she said, took students into nearby arroyos and other open spaces to augment what was being taught in the classroom.
“They really have embraced using the environment around them to learn,” Everett said.
Still, there are some challenges with outdoor classrooms, especially for schools that don’t have designed spaces for learning.
Eide said the weather can make maintaining tents designed for classroom use difficult, especially given how windy it can be south of Santa Fe at certain times of the year.
“Our geography is such that, in the springtime, the wind would come through here and send some of our outdoor classrooms out to Pecos,” Eide said. “So, we have to think differently about it.”
Santa Fe Prep Head of School Aaron Schubach said instructors struggled with internet connectivity and didn’t have adequate technological support when they tried to use tents for a hybrid model of learning. The result was that students learning remotely were shut out of lessons.
And, Schubach said, with cold temperatures in the wintertime, those outdoor classrooms became moot.
Everett acknowledged there are some issues regarding outdoor classrooms. But she contended there is a difference between the concept of outdoor learning and merely learning while outdoors.
She said those who adopt outdoor learning realize technology isn’t necessary, and that schools fully reopening will alleviate some of the issues.
Ultimately, Everett hopes the coronavirus pandemic will drive more interest in outdoor learning. She said a study the group will release in April will show more than half of the state’s students already have access to outdoor learning on an annual basis.
It’s now a matter of exploring those spaces — and learning from them.
“We, as an organization, have really shifted the last few years to really focus on systems change,” Everett said. “What are the changes that are needed, in terms of the systems and structures and institutions, to really think about embedding outdoor learning into an everyday experience for our kids?”