Outdoor classrooms enhance learning and fun

08/22/2010  | 
physical education

ED OUT is an exciting new partnership that uses parks, forests, and refuges as outdoor classrooms to enhance fun and learning during the summer, better prepare students for the next school year, and encourage outdoor recreation experiences that help America’s youth fight the epidemic of childhood obesity. 

ED OUT resulted from discussions among Prince William (Virginia) County Schools (PWCS) leadership, senior federal executives and leading national recreation officials at a June 2009 awards program at the U.S. Department of the Interior honoring the school system’s role in Monarch Live, a remote learning program highlighting the birth and migration of Monarch butterflies in the Americas. The campaign is led by PWCS, the American Recreation Coalition (ARC) and the USDA Forest Service (FS).

The Prince William County School District has some 80,000 students in grades K-12. It is the second largest, the fastest growing and one of the most technologically advanced school systems in Virginia. The system includes 88 schools — including 55 elementary, 15 middle and 10 high schools — and more than 5,000 teachers. The system is quite diverse in population: White 39.7 percent; Hispanic 24.3 percent; African American 22.9 percent; Asian 7.7 percent; Other 5.3 percent.

ARC is a national 501(c)3 which has played a central role in public recreation policies since 1979, and led efforts to create the National Scenic Byways Program, the Recreational Trails Program and legislation which enables federal agencies to retain and use without normal appropriation activity fees collected as entrance, camping and other recreation fees. The FS manages the nation’s national forests, hosting hundreds of millions of recreation visits annually and also providing leadership in conservation education and assistance to state and private forestlands.

ED OUT launched after less than a year’s planning during Great Outdoors Month 2010, as nearly 600 students went outdoors on June 4 for education and fun. Students in fourth and seventh grades rotated through learning stations and activities during the day, just as they would during most school days. But the difference was that the instruction was provided by adjunct faculty drawn from NASA and the Forest Service, BLM and the National Wildlife Federation and many more. Science, art and history were presented in ways that tied to the coming year’s curriculum – and a new website (www.edout.us) provided even more information on how summer months could be used to combine fun and getting a head start on the next academic year.

From learning about light spectrums and wetland mitigation projects to drawing entries for the Junior Duck Stamp Contest and learning about the music of nature, the students were attentive and very engaged. Healthy lunches — with carrots and fruit and juice — provided energy while special water bottles and ample refill opportunities kept the action going even on a hot day with temperatures in the 90’s. The day wrapped with a mass swearing in of Junior Forest Rangers followed by fruit popsicles — and lots of smiles. The day utilized one of the closing days of the academic year — after traditional testing and teaching have largely concluded, and a time of significant challenge in most classrooms. The program also helps students understand more about career opportunities involving the Great Outdoors.

When fully implemented, ED OUT will offer each child in grades K-11 a day of experiential learning outdoors. The day may involve outdoor activities in and nearby school campuses, including planting gardens, trees and introductions to outdoor fun. In addition, tens of thousands of students will travel to nearby recreation sites, where adjunct faculty will work with classroom teachers to deliver lessons ranging from physical sciences to history to art to forensic science. While in the outdoors, students enjoy a healthy lunch and learn more about good eating practices and the connection between eating and activity levels. This reinforces the school systems efforts beginning

in 2007 to revamp school cafeteria menus to emphasize healthier eating habits, a process begun after the school system found itself a regional leader in the percentage of children classified as obese and overweight.

Participating student are provided with:

  1. suggested summer break activities, readings and trips specifically addressing the academic program of the next grade, including suggested family trips and activities
  2. information about nearby summer fun at federal, state and local sites
  3. special offers from recreation retailers and service providers.

A new website, www.edout.us, provides information and opportunities for students, parents and teachers alike to access the wealth of information about ways to make the outdoors an exciting and relevant year-round classroom. Following its successful June 2010 pilot effort, Prince William County is planning to drastically increase the number of its students invited to participate in ED OUT. Expansion of ED OUT to other school districts across the nation is also underway. Pilot locations are under consideration in the Denver, Chicago and Seattle/Portland metropolitan areas.

Prince William County Schools’ (PWCS) dynamic superintendent, Dr. Steven L. Walts, who participated in most of the ED OUT planning and the pilot effort, told the event partners that the day had overcome the challenges of making the final days of the school year quality learning time and proved to the students that great fun and adventure can be found beyond electronic screens – where studies now show American youth spend, on average, 7.5 hours daily.

For further information, contact Ben Swecker, Prince William County Schools, 800-609-2680, [email protected] or Derrick Crandall, American Recreation Coalition, 202-682-9530, [email protected]
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