Students and teachers in our public schools know too well the challenges of classroom learning during COVID -19. Alternative education models, inconsistent schedules, and safety protocols make concentration in the classroom much more difficult. If there were ever a time for schools to explore out-of-the-box alternatives, a pandemic would seem to be the perfect time.
One alternative being proposed by Kaniksu Land Trust with support from the University of Idaho, is the outdoor classroom model. Some local schools have already joined KLT in a pilot project.
“We’re so excited about this creative opportunity to support learning outcomes in our community, both now and into the future,” said KLT Executive Director Katie Cox. “When innovative organizations like LPOSD, KLT, University of Idaho and Colorado College gather around a common objective, anything seems possible.”
When we think of an outdoor learning space, our first thoughts may jump to chaos and distraction. Although this may well be the case, local teachers have also reported better concentration, fewer behavioral issues, and improved attendance during outdoor education experiences. Teachers notice that group activities can go on indefinitely compared to about a 25-minute limit in the classroom setting.
Learning in an outdoor setting certainly has its challenges. In our area, the weather during the school year is often cold, rainy, windy, or snowy. Playgrounds and sports fields at schools offer little protection from the elements. Mud and slush are prevalent. When kids are cold, they are distracted. How can this be addressed?
Last fall Kaniksu Land Trust installed collapsible tent structures at two local elementary schools to serve as temporary outdoor classrooms. These proved sufficient to provide a degree of protection from inclement weather as well as open air which provides for a safer experience in a time of COVID. Families are aware that their kids need to be prepared to learn outdoors in typical North Idaho weather. Teachers appreciate that all of their students can participate in this learning model inclusively, without the common barriers of field trips such as liability, transportation, scheduling, and cost. While KLT’s outreach programs and the temporary shelters served their purpose, there was a stated desire for something more.
“We knew that these tents were not a long term solution if we looked down the road 5 years. The possibilities to design an outdoor space that was conducive to a myriad of different teaching and learning opportunities, as well as keeping in mind the ever-changing weather challenges was essential to support this shift in educational teaching opportunities,” said Cox
When KLT’s in-school outreach programs came to a screeching halt in March 2020, the organization quickly pivoted. Outside facilitators were no longer permitted in schools, but KLT staff realized that this could be a shining moment for outdoor education. In addition to temporary shelters as outdoor classrooms, KLT, University of Idaho, and LPOSD staff began to discuss a more sustainable model – a permanent outdoor learning venue. Rewilding a corner of the existing school grounds would support teachers in conducting enriching outdoor learning experiences, even in the absence of outside facilitators. And students could learn outside more frequently. From this idea, a fortuitous partnership emerged between KLT, University of Idaho, Colorado College, and Lake Pend Oreille School District.
Partnerships are an efficient, cost-effective way to leverage resources to accomplish more. KLT regularly collaborates with community partners to further their respective missions, but admittedly, this type of long-distance collaboration may have never happened pre-pandemic. With a basic vision of what might be possible, architecture faculty at Colorado College committed to using the Sandpoint outdoor classroom concept as a design challenge for an architecture studio course taught (remotely) during the fall. The Colorado College students “met” remotely with students, teachers, and administrators at Farmin-Stidwell Elementary, located 1,150 miles away, and proceeded to create thoughtfully designed outdoor classroom models customized to the climate and needs of local schools.
The student design teams presented their concepts with the professionalism of paid consultants. Addressing the challenge of working on a project in an unfamiliar location, the teams interviewed and closely listened to LPOSD students and staff about their needs and the nuances of the local area. The design students earned work experience on a real world project, while LPOSD received consultation and design work with no financial output. The best part of all was that Farmin Stidwell students were directly involved in the design process, which was fitting as the classroom concepts were intended to directly benefit their individual educational experiences.
“So often design – specifically architecture – in an academic setting can happen in a vacuum. The teacher tasks the student with a challenge to overcome, some objective criteria to check off, and very often the end-user experience left to the end to be considered (if at all.) More often than not, the student has very little to no actual engagement with the end-user: quite the opposite from the practice of architecture where the participation of the end-user or client is paramount. The burgeoning relationship of individuals from the Kaniksu Land Trust, Lake Pend Oreille School District (LPOSD), University of Idaho, and Colorado College (CC) has afforded the opportunity for CC Students enrolled in a series of design workshops to directly engage the end-user – the LPOSD students and faculty – to provide a more considerate and inclusive approach to design with the hope that the end product – an outdoor classroom – can elevate the experience of the LPOSD student,” Zac Stevens, Architectural Design Instructor at Colorado College, said in a statement.
Both designs include features that utilize the natural qualities of native and recycled materials to retain thermal energy (to maximize warmth), facilitate wonder, blend with the local environment (including the architectural design of the existing school building), obscure power poles and neighborhoods, and highlight natural features. The students took into account local wind patterns and areas of maximum sunlight for comfort in the elements. Separate ingress and egress centers allow for safe use of the space by multiple classrooms throughout the day. The location of the outdoor classrooms was positioned so as not to detract from existing playgrounds and sports fields.
Not surprisingly, each concept was completely unique from the other. One group focused their design on making the space as seamlessly integrated into the land as possible, even proposing using recycled materials as appropriate.
The second group’s design incorporated physical and mental health enhancing components such as tunnels and colorful tinted plexiglass filters to counteract the effects of gray days in the winter.
“As I look forward to our outdoor spaces, this project has brought a larger perspective on what I thought might be possible,” Farmin-Stidwell Elementary School Principal Erik Olson said.
The partner review session, which marked the end of the project for the Colorado College students, inspired additional innovative ideas. For instance, the spaces intended for classroom use during school hours could be repurposed as recreational and event spaces when school is not in session. The group also discussed how the environment itself might respond to the spaces, perhaps providing opportunities for students to observe local wildlife.
A second group of architecture studio students at Colorado College will be focusing on a similar design project later this winter, this time in partnership with Washington Elementary School in Sandpoint. The eventual dream of the partnership is to bring this vision to reality by constructing one of the student designs on school grounds.
The students and faculty of LPOSD, along with KLT, U of I, and Colorado College are finding real solutions to the challenges of classroom learning during COVID-19 and beyond – each from the perspective of their individual missions. Long after COVID-19 safety precautions have become obsolete, generations of children will continue to benefit from access to outdoor spaces for health, wonder, and learning. The outdoor classroom may be a guarantee of that reality for all children.
To learn about this project’s progress and KLT’s other innovative solutions to conservation, connection, and community challenges, visit www.kaniksu.org or follow KLT’s social media channels.