When we think about education, we usually think about a classroom with textbooks and technology that provide knowledge. Of course, we can also learn from the world around us—the natural world and our interactions with other people. In mainstream education, these two approaches to education are often on opposite sides of a spectrum, usually with little overlap.
But St. Therese Catholic School in Deephaven is starting to knock down some of these “instructional walls” to open up its classrooms—and students’ minds—to a world of knowledge that lies just beyond the classroom door. St. Therese’s new outdoor classroom opened last fall, after principal Lauren Caton and full-day care director Jo Ellen Begalke toured another nature-based preschool in the Twin Cities. “We loved what we saw. We were inspired,” says Caton.
The team at St. Therese quickly decided that an outdoor classroom was a necessity to allow kids the freedom to play, create, explore and learn on its 29-acre campus, already brimming with natural elements.
In designing the outdoor classroom, St. Therese partnered with Nature Explore, which is based in Nebraska to design a dynamic, nature-based play and learning space. A dozen learning stations are set up outside the school building, with a gathering space that seats children and adults. The school raised the money for the project at its annual spring parish fundraiser.
Now, students spend about half of the school day in the year-round (yes, year-round) outdoor classroom, where they practice independence, empathy, helpfulness—and freely using their outside voices. During the winter months, St. Therese staff partners with parents to ensure all students have proper outdoor attire, and the brisk weather is taken into account each day. “Even 20 minutes outside can make a big difference in how we learn inside the classroom,” says Caton.
Although the outdoor classroom was originally created with preschoolers in mind, the space is used by students of all ages. In the preschool program, staff have seen an increase in critical thinking and problem solving, science, language/literacy, math, visual-spatial learning and construction/engineering skills.
St. Therese’s youngest students get to see the world in a way that’s totally different from traditional classroom settings. Students enjoy getting a close-up view of nature, like planting tulips and watching them bloom in spring.
Each day in the outdoor classroom begins with a morning meeting where students get to breathe in the fresh air. Then students can select activities of their choice that allow them to engage with nature and each other. Activities might include painting in the sunshine, building snow forts, playing marimba or drums in the music area, or watering plants.
“Connections are a critical part of fostering a love of learning,” Caton says.