Students ‘thrive’ in outdoor classrooms used during COVID-19 pandemic

Something magical happens when teachers take learning outside — kids are engaged, they’re active, and they’re in a safer pandemic environment.

“It’s just something about kids when they are outside,” said Fairview Elementary School Principal Karen Cupples. “I mean, really, they thrive — some thrive — in that environment. And not all, but I think we’re offering different alternatives to meet the needs of all the students.”

Fairview Elementary has renovated its outdoor classroom, which now has walls and new picnic tables. While the project was underway before COVID-19, Cupples said it became even more urgent once she realized this school year would be different.

“They were literally having to see the same four walls all day except for lunch, and that’s not good for anybody,” Cupples said.

Students across East Tennessee are learning outside as outdoor classrooms were prepped just in time for a unique school year.

At Foothills Elementary School in Maryville, students can now sit outside in a shaded area equipped with weather devices. Third grade teacher Patty Stinnett said the thermometer, rain gauge and anemometer will help her students learn during the weather unit in science class.

The space was built by Garrett Keyl for his Eagle Scout project. He worked to get sod planted and even took a trip to the school’s roof to place the anemometer. It sends wind speed and humidity information to Stinnett’s classroom.

Students can access the school’s Wi-Fi, and after school students can use the area as well. Stinnett works with Keyl’s mom, who is a kindergarten teacher. 

“We can get the kids here, they can spread out and do things or you can teach from here, so we’re hoping it can be utilized in lots of ways,” Stinnett said. “So we were just thrilled that Garrett took over and got it all done for us.” 

In Knox County, Dogwood Elementary has an arboretum with a temporary stream, a half-mile nature trail containing 51 labeled tree species, and a large number of woodland plants and wildflowers. 

Learning outside: Looking for safer learning? Dogwood Elementary pushes back-to-school lessons outdoors

In Anderson County Schools, at least two elementary schools have outdoor learning areas.

In the same county, Norwood Elementary School Principal Karri Hobby is excited to have a courtyard that will allow students to read outside and spread out. The courtyard has picnic tables, gardening areas and a lending library. 

“I think that’s going to be the key for us is to find ways to keep anxiety down for our kiddos and to not get frustrated and to be able to get fresh air and to take those masks off and to relax and sit and read,” Hobby said. “I’m really hoping just the different seating … will just be relaxing and they can unwind.”

While Cupples and Hobby said they are excited for this school year, they both have plans for the future. Cupples would like to get solar-powered fans, and Hobby hopes to create a garden that families can use even in the summertime.


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