Garrison Forest School in Owings Mills has long used its sprawling, wooded, 110-acre campus as a learning lab. Biology classes take samples at the campus pond. Art students create large-scale outdoor sculptures. Lower School girls walk nearly every trail on physical education “Power Walks.” The campus has even served as a heat-sensor station for a research project on climate control by a Garrison Forest Women in Science and Engineering (WISE) student through the GFS WISE partnership with Johns Hopkins University.
In November, Garrison Forest’s commitment to outdoor education took a giant green leap with the opening of its new Outdoor Classroom. The Outdoor Classroom joins the Lower School playground, which opened in January 2016, to create dedicated play and learning spaces designed with younger students, especially girls, in mind. Garrison Forest is all-girls’ from Kindergarten through 12th grade with a coed Preschool and regional, national and international boarding in 8th – 12th grades.
If the mud, music and smiles from the first few weeks’ of the classroom’s use are any indication, the new space is proving that creating knowledge that sticks—deep, transformative learning—also can be joyfully and quite literally sticky. “The Outdoor Classroom offers exactly the kind of challenging, open-ended learning and play that helps girls and our Preschool children develop intellectually and physically push themselves to take appropriate, exhilarating risks,” says Dr. Kim Roberts, Head of School. “The equipment and lay-out were created to inspire creative thinking and engagement with the natural environment and with one another.”
Designed by Nature Explore, a national leader in outdoor education, and Hord Coplan Macht, the Outdoor Classroom has 11 different multidisciplinary areas, which encompass art, science, music, engineering and more. Children learn biology and sustainability in the Classroom’s garden and a meadow. They dig in sand and mud areas. Large campus trees originally slated for removal have been repurposed as climbing areas. The music and performance areas have a drum, stage and xylophone, and there are many spaces to gather, read, draw or simply watch the many birds and creatures that call the Garrison Forest campus home. The water play area has a working pump, inclined wooden trough and large reservoir, perfect for floating pine cones and conducting Well Water Engineering experiments. The space is intended for use during each season and will be the location for a summer nature program this summer.
A committee of Garrison Forest faculty wrote a comprehensive, ever-evolving curriculum guide for the Outdoor Classroom, but as predicted, the inviting space has inspired uses well beyond the guide. Lower School students sprawl on the climbing stones for reading sessions. Preschoolers frequently enjoy free play in the Classroom, while older students are using the space in innovative ways. Recently, the English III American Literature class studied Henry David Thoreau’s Walden in the Classroom, which was a fitting setting for a discussion on nature reflecting the human spirit. “The lines between play and learning and between exploration and learning should be blurry,” explains science teacher Tracey Brocato, who led the committee. “From the beginning, we wanted to provide a direct connection to nature that promotes a sense of wonder and an understanding of ecology and environmentalism in our students.”
The Outdoor Classroom also embraces what is a cutting-edge movement nationally in education. Research is showing that a lot more than a change of scenery occurs when learning moves to the great outdoors. When a child learns in and about nature, the intellectual, developmental, social and physical benefits are overwhelming. School performance and standardized test scores improve, as does attitudes about school, in-school behavior and attendance (American Institute for Research). The active, hands-on nature of outdoor learning has been shown to reduce stress and decrease ADHD symptoms (Health Education Research and American Journal of Public Health). Outdoor education also enhances students’ sense of self, independence, confidence, creativity, decision-making and problem-solving skills, empathy towards others, motor skills, self-discipline and initiative (Children’s Play Council). And in an ever-increasing digital world with technology-savvy toddlers, increased outdoor experiences are essential to helping the iGeneration understand and develop a lasting connection to the natural world. And that’s just what Garrison Forest students are doing in their new Outdoor Classroom.
For more information, visit gfs.org.
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