Updated: Jun 15
When the pandemic hit, schools everywhere were faced with one of the hardest decisions possible:
How can we make sure kids are learning, while also keeping everyone safe and healthy?
Different schools came up with different answers to that question.
Our answer? Outdoor classrooms.
How we did it
Turning Hess Academy into a fully outdoor classroom experience was no small feat.
First, we had to find space for all 75 of our students to be spread out and able to maintain safe social distance. This meant getting creative about where exactly school would take place.
Thankfully, our incredible community of families and supporters stepped up to the plate and helped us come up with 3 locations to call School.
The youngest 4 pods were situated at the school property; 2 pods were located in a large green space located in a residential area; and the last two pods (our "urban pods!") were located on a commercial property with multiple outdoor spaces.
Next, we had to plan for whatever weather that nature would throw at us. You know those cool tents you see at weddings and events? Yup, those. Turns out they also make for perfect outdoor classrooms! They suited our needs perfectly, allowing the right combination of shelter from the elements and plenty of open airflow.
The most challenging part of the creative process was re-envisioning the configuration of the tools for teaching, in ways both accessible and protected from the weather. This was certainly an ongoing undertaking, with many trials and errors. Each separate pod developed a new version of classroom setup and structure to take the group through the year.
Most importantly... WHY we did it
The work at Hess Academy is rooted in the developmental-interaction (Bank Street) approach:
“all individuals learn best when they are actively engaged with materials, ideas, and people, and that authentic growth requires diverse and nurturing opportunities for ongoing social, emotional, and cognitive development.”
In deciding how we should proceed in Fall 2020, we reflected on our top educational values, who we are as a school community, and what we know about best practice. For us, it boiled down to two deciding factors: relationships and hands-on experience.
These are the two cornerstone pieces that we simply cannot compromise, and they both work best face-to-face, person-to-person.
Humans are relational creatures.
Humans are interactive creatures.
Human nature made it clear that we had to find a way to get back to in-person learning, ASAP. Outdoor classrooms were the safest, healthiest (and most fun!) way to do just that.
Relationships are the bedrock of education; everything else builds upon that foundation. At Hess Academy, teachers prioritize building authentic relationships with students, knowing that all learning will flow from there.
Leading research in neuroscience has found that when students feel psychologically safe in an environment, and when they have strong bonds with their teachers and peers, their brains are better able to learn and grow.
As hard as we tried with virtual teaching, the experience confirmed what we already knew to be true: there is just no substitute for human connection, and that kind of connection is most deeply felt in person, not across screens.
Young and growing brains are constantly hard at work, building a concept of the world around them. Being able to touch, experience, or manipulate things in authentic, tangible ways, is critical for learning. Without this, it is difficult to form new concepts and almost impossible to make these concepts stick.
During our short stint of virtual school in the spring of 2020, we observed that even if students did learn concepts, they had trouble retaining them. They also understood them on a more surface level.
Since we’ve come back together, it has been immediately apparent to me how the physical environment and social interactions spark imagination and deepen creativity, and how important that is. I have watched as kids were busy painting, making, creating, and doing projects, such as taking clay outside to shape it in their hands.
In our outdoor classrooms, students have access to a learning environment filled with a variety of materials and experiences that empower them to be their most engaged and creative selves.
They’re getting their hands on the material, and in turn wrapping their minds around the information. They’re forming (sometimes quite literally) their conceptual understanding in deeper, more meaningful ways. Ways that stick.
The Magical Mix
In our outdoor classrooms, I’ve been able to witness the overlaps and intersections of those two key ingredients-- relationships and hands-on experience-- and to see how when they are combined, they can be even more magical.
Take Writers’ Workshop for instance.
The outdoor classroom is the ideal writing muse. Students have the best of both-- access to technology to get their thoughts on digital paper, paired with the backdrop of nature all around them as they ideate and create.
They’re able to exchange peer feedback, face-to-face.
They get to take a piece all the way through the writing cycle, from brainstorming, to planning, to drafting, to revising, to publishing. They have a variety of materials at their fingertips that they can use as they create, and a group of fellow writers to journey through the process alongside them.
And the best part?
They get to share their creations at the “Publishing Party,” where others can experience it, too.
Hess Academy is an outside-the-box school, and outdoor classrooms have been just the right outside-the-box solution we needed for redefining what it means to do school in the midst of a pandemic.
The outdoor classrooms have continued to affirm our most deeply-held beliefs about education:
We believe relationships are at the core of all learning, and that learning happens through hands-on experience.