Taking learning outdoors

The pandemic has created a seismic shift in how lessons are delivered to students

Outdoor education_Photo courtesy CECCE

During the first year of the pandemic, many teachers took their classes outside. With the return of warm weather, classes can get outdoors once again.

“We’ve always had an outside-the-classroom component for our students,” says Gareth Reid, director of Turnbull School. “Places like Baxter Conservation Centre and the MacSkimming Outdoor Education Centre were great places for outdoor education,” he says. “Because of our proximity to the Experimental Farm, excursions were frequent.” Although COVID-19 has put these trips on pause, it doesn’t stop Turnbull from taking classes outside. Much of their physical education classes are outdoors. “It makes it easy to physically distance when we take the class outside, “says Reid, “so we can run, and take walks safely.” Reid says that outdoor science experiments are important as well. The students plant tulips and get to see them grow, and they usually do a cleanup around the school for Earth Day. The fresh air is invigorating and it’s good to get out of the classroom. “It was a year of making adjustments,” says Reid, “including going to virtual classrooms and developing new skills. Our teachers and students stepped up to the challenge. But now, being able to get outside when the weather is nice is a huge help and a break from being indoors.”

What if it’s raining and teachers can’t get students outside for a class? They turn it into a learning opportunity. “We cover a huge area,” says Sylvie Tessier-Lacroix, principal, Academie d’apprentissage virtuel for the Conseil des écoles catholiques du centre-est (CECCE), “so it might be raining in Vars, but not in Trenton. For a virtual class, it’s the perfect opportunity to learn how weather works.” Tessier-Lacroix says teachers transformed their teaching strategies to adapt to the virtual setting. “When I think about where we were in September, we’ve come a long way,” says Tessier-Lacroix. “It’s been a transforming experience.” And part of that transformative experience has been to take the virtual class outside. “The students get to take their iPad outside and do a science lesson. For example, the younger kids asked themselves: What happens to water when it freezes? Tessier-Lacroix says getting outside lets them touch and smell things and engages them in authentic learning activities. “Our younger students go outside and collect pinecones, rocks and twigs that get turned into crafts or even a science project.” She says that parents have been supportive and understand that things can be done differently and still be effective. “It was a bit daunting at first,” says Tessier-Lacroix, “but now the students are really interacting, they have a sense of belonging to a bigger community and our teachers have done an outstanding job offering a flexible learning environment all while maintaining a high level of excellence in their teaching to ensure student learning and growth—even when the students are connecting from home. They’re growing and learning both in the classroom and by getting outside, and most importantly, staying safe.”  

Part of the mandate of St-Laurent Academy’s physical education curriculum and programming is to get outside. “COVID or no COVID, we ensure our students receive ‘gym’ each and every day. The difference this year is that we host all of our classes outdoors and the kids love it,” says Colleen Long, principal, elementary and junior high schools. The school’s director of athletics and his team have put together and facilitated a full “outdoor based” program which brings to light a true “outdoor ed” philosophy. Having access to a beautiful park next door, which the school adopted, as well as a back play area has made the transition outside easy. “Through the seasons, the school has integrated a variety of sports (new ones too), outdoor challenges and a better appreciation for snow,” laughed Long.  

In addition, St-Laurent Academy has its own outdoor classroom, created and built through the leadership of science teacher Michael Leveille. “Our classes continue to make the 15-minute walk to our Macoun Marsh, where we have been exploring and observing the many different and beautiful species through the seasons. COVID has not stopped nature and right now, it is the perfect time to watch everything come to life!” explained Long.  The outdoor classroom has not only been used from a science perspective, but also for art, math and team building. 

During the pandemic, the move to online learning was extremely smooth at St-Laurent Academy, as the teachers and administration had already been utilizing the full Google platform. They have been facilitating simultaneous live and online programming throughout. “I believe everyone’s preference is to be together and in-person, however, this has not been an option for some of our families,” explained Long, “and in ensuring the students who are online receive the same level of education as those in person, this is top of mind.”