Outdoor classroom allows kids to learn through play

At a school in St. Lazare, teachers want to get kids outside during classroom time, so they can enjoy the fresh air while fuelling their brains

Like most modern elementary schools, Forest Hill Jr. is integrating the latest technology into its classrooms, adding computerized smartboards and iPads, robotics kits and Chromebooks, even QR codes and a new 3D printer.

Yet the latest innovation at this St. Lazare school is about as far from these high-tech toys as you can get: an outdoor classroom with a variety of play centres made from recycled wood pallets, old tires and a bit of lumber.

According to teacher Sylvie Ozell, the objective is to get kids outside not just at recess and lunch, but also during classroom time, so that kids can learn through play outdoors.

Ozell knew from raising her own two boys that children have a real need to move — and there’s no better place to do that than outside. She also knew that just being out in nature can help improve concentration and feelings of well-being, both of which can help kids learn. “Being in nature, you feel good,” she said. “You feel Zen.”

The classroom includes a number of learning stations designed to make it easier for teachers to adapt activities to the outdoors. For example, there is a large table where teachers ask children to make letters out of twigs or create patterns from pinecones and stones collected around the playground, a little stage where students can stand to deliver their oral presentations, and a covered area with seats made from logs where teachers can deliver classroom lessons.

There are also many landscaping features designed to inspire free play, including logs to balance on, sandboxes, a “bus” made of pallets and old plastic chairs (complete with a steering wheel), a mud kitchen with pots and pans to fill with dirt and leaves, and even a loose parts playground with junk like old tires and scrap lumber that kids can build with or take apart.

Ozell is now working with the other teachers to develop ideas to incorporate the outside time into the curriculum. One of the teachers has already led a project to create a “bug hotel” where students can observe and learn about insects. Another has created “fairy homes” in the holes of a dead tree, and plans to ask her students to write letters to the fairies. Ozell says the fairies may even write back, so students will practice reading as well as writing.

Everything in the outdoor classroom was built with the help of the Centre des Moissons (a vocational school operated by the Commission Scolaire de la Vallée-des-Tisserands that trains arborists, horticulturists and landscapers) along with parents, staff and community volunteers. Much of the material was donated, and the rest was bought with the help of funds provided by the Home and School committee.