Go Outside! Nature-Based Schools in Atlanta
Playing in the creek, counting rocks, exploring the forest, planting in the garden, feeding donkeys, sorting sticks, getting dirty – sounds fun, right? All of these kid-friendly activities are also forms of learning and ones that are embraced in outdoor learning environments. Turns out the great outdoors make an exceptional classroom!
In recent months, being outside – at restaurants, for fitness classes, playdates and religious services – has become more common based on COVID research and guidelines. But physical health related to the pandemic is far from the only reason that learning outside is a focus of several schools in metro Atlanta. Prior to the pandemic, these schools understood the benefit of exposure to nature for their students’ development and academic success.
High Meadows School, located in Roswell, has been offering exposure to nature as part of their learning programs since 1973. “Our focus has always been on environmental sustainability, the life cycle, and the emotional and physiological benefits of nature for our students,” says Lori Kennedy, Lower Years Principal. “We had a stronger connection with the outdoors last year because of COVID, but it wasn’t new.” Their preschool through eighth grade students have always had daily exposure to 42 acres of land, including grassy fields, a farm and scenic woodlands as part of the private school’s immersive International Baccalaureate curriculum. “We have a strong belief in the concept of free play,” says Kennedy. “Students use the natural environment and the world around them to develop their own identity through their experiences.”
The Garden School in Marietta, now in its sixth year, was designed around a model where students were outside at least two hours per day. COVID shifted that focus and now students spend almost all day outside, unless there is inclement weather. “We have outdoor restrooms and covered pavilions for each grade,” explains Development Director Brooke Fraser. “Our kindergarteners even nap outside in their pavilion.”
The school, which is the first Forest Kindergarten in Georgia and is certified through eighth grade, currently has students through fourth grade as they add a class each year. Melissa Murray, who has been teaching at the school since the beginning, says that the more relaxed environment actually helps the students stay focused. “Many think that the kids would be distracted outside, but they actually get really used to the noises of nature, which is far less jarring than an abrupt noise you might here in a traditional school setting,” she says.
Murray also notes that her students exhibit lifelong qualities like perseverance and honoring boundaries from a young age based on their exposure to the outdoors. “Even walking from class to class takes place outside, so students are capable of moving within their environment while understanding and honoring boundaries,” she says. “They are allowed to get dirty and wet playing in the creek, which is a safe risk for our students.” The Garden School also prides their program on creating environmental stewards. “The kids are really living in and experiencing nature on a daily basis, so as they get older, they will want to take care of the world because they love to be in it.”
Julia Hill, Environmental Educator & Mentor at Turning Sun Clairmont, echoes Murray’s sentiments. “Our students know a lot about the world around them because they live it every day,” she says. Her students are preschoolers and benefit from the school’s 8-acre outdoor campus complete with a garden paired with a Reggio-inspired curriculum. “Being outside dictates our curriculum,” Hill notes. “We follow the lead of the children in the direction of the lesson. For instance, if a group of children finds some interesting rocks, we will stop to count and sort the rocks, which is math. Or, if we see a bug eating a plant, we can learn about the bug and also share ideas on how to keep our plants safe from pests.”
This exploration model allows the preschoolers to take risks and learn more about what interests them. “Freedom to try new things is an important part of learning,” says Hill. “Our garden gives our students the chance to try new foods. Today for lunch, we ate bok choy that they planted a few months ago.” Students also have the opportunity to walk in the woods or play in the creek, which are safe risks that build self-confidence for the preschoolers.
Risk taking is also an integral part of the kindergarten experience at High Meadows. “Our kindergarten spends 90% of their time outside,” notes Kennedy. “They have specific spots around campus dedicated for their use.” One of these locations is a covered outdoor classroom, complete with composting toilet, in the woods. This space gives the students an opportunity to take risks and accomplish tasks and challenges that are only available in the natural world. “They will work together to find ways to cross the creek together, which includes problem solving and collaboration,” says Kennedy. “It is also independent thinking in a different way than would happen with a teacher giving an assignment in a traditional classroom setting.”
Social interactions are more prevalent and natural in outdoor learning environments as well. Natural collaboration and peer support happen on a daily basis,” says Murray. “Our students work together to explore or create something from what they find in nature.” The same is true at Turning Sun Clairmont as well as The Children’s School (TCS), which is located in Midtown Atlanta. “Play is serious learning,” says mom of two TCS students Kerri Murphy. “TCS focuses on letting kids learn through play, which is social and fun.”
She says her daughters – one a second grader and the other in PreK – are happy kids who care about people and the world around them. “They are joyful,” she notes. Students at TCS move around the campus, as well as the city of Atlanta, which is an extended part of the campus. “Piedmont Park is across the street,” says Murphy. And, while it’s fun, they are also really learning. “I love when my second grader comes home to tell me she is doing math in Piedmont Park. She is finding sets of 10 in nature. It’s clicking into place for her in a different way than it would by doing a worksheet.” At TCS, students can explore subjects that they are interested in in nature, and it’s integrated by the teachers. High Meadows’ students learn to build their names out of elements found in nature to complement the traditional kindergarten themes of letters and phonics.
This can-do attitude, sense of responsibility and inquisitive nature is consistent across schools with a focus on outdoor learning. It comes from the natural environment and also from the type of academic curricula these schools embrace. From IB to Waldorf to Reggio, these programs focus on independent and collaborative learning, student exploration and teacher support. “Our philosophy is that the teacher is the facilitator,” says Hill. “We use what the students are doing at the moment to do to peer-to-peer learning and support.” Third graders at The Garden School are responsible for the campus farm, including feeding the animals and watering the plants. At High Meadows, multi-age learning groups allow children to learn from others; leaders naturally emerge and model appropriate behavior. “The older kids aren’t always the leaders,” says Kennedy. “Kids have different strengths and are working on a continuum, so this helps students grow in various ways – both academically and socially/emotionally.”
Being outside also boosts gross motor skills, especially for young learners. “Climbing, jumping, digging and playing are all beneficial to long-term coordination and body health,” says Hill. A group of first graders at The Garden School spent time over a week to unearth an old tire, working together, digging and then rolling it down a hill to add to their outdoor classroom space. “They were so proud of finding it and then of being able to move it together where they wanted it to be,” says Murray. “As a teacher, it makes you so happy to see that.”
Students at TCS understand how they learn and how to learn with every experience. “They are also taught empathy, equity and diversity,” says Murphy. These types of life skills, along with collaboration, deep thinking and problem solving, not only help the students today, but are beneficial as they move into high school and the job market.
No matter where your child attends school, next time you’re in your own backyard or hiking in a local park, let your kids take the time to explore, get dirty and ask questions. It’s fun and good for their development!