Garrison Forest School Utilizes the Great Outdoors for Innovative Learning During COVID

SCHOOL SPOTLIGHT | Garrison Forest School

The pandemic has hit everyone unexpectedly in so many ways. Living and working environments have become interchangeable, and many children and schools have had to redefine what it means to teach and learn in the year 2020.

While many schools are struggling to find new ways to educate their students in person, Garrison Forest School in Owings Mills has utilized their sprawling 110 acre campus to create safe outdoor learning environments to not only teach their students, but also to inspire and invigorate the learning experience. Not an easy feat while accommodating the diverse needs of their coed Preschool and all-girls Kindergarten through Grade 12 community.

When planning what this school year would look like, the Lower School staff created a schedule that accommodates on-campus, concurrent/hybrid, and online learning to cater to the needs of all learners and families. Routines and schedules for each learning pathway are very similar to create consistency so that students feel comfortable and engaged, no matter which pathway they choose. A large emphasis is placed on community building within each homeroom in order to support the academic, social and emotional lives of the students.

SCHOOL SPOTLIGHT | Garrison Forest School

“While the current pandemic has certainly placed many constraints on our lives, I think it is important as educators and administrators that we think positively, optimistically, and creatively,” explained Gail Hutton, Head of the Lower Division at Garrison. “We are able to create outstanding, engaging, and academically enriching learning experiences outdoors. Rather than dwell on what we are not able to do, let’s explore what we can try, and what is possible. Our natural world will not disappoint.”

And create they did. Students that are learning on-campus spend a large portion of their day outdoors. In addition to the outdoor classrooms, forests, pond, field, and walking paths throughout, three large tents were installed on the campus for outdoor socially-distanced gatherings, dining, learning, and outdoor fun during inclement weather. STEM, Outdoor Education class, recess, lunch, ten minute “nature breaks,” Physical Education classes, and Equestrian classes all happen outdoors. Core academic and special area teachers are encouraged to take advantage of the outdoor spaces with their classes, too. Students are often seen doing independent reading outside or studying the plants, leaves and flowers they find on campus and recording their observations.

SCHOOL SPOTLIGHT | Garrison Forest School

Garrison’s Curriculum Specialist, Ashby Thoeni takes students on nature breaks each day.

“We arrived at the pond one day, and I let my students step into a shallow part of the water,” said Ashby. “One student was nervous at first, but I could tell that she really wanted to try. She slowly stepped into the water, one foot at a time, and once she had both feet in, she looked up at me with a smile that I will never forget, and said, ‘I DID IT!’ Pride and joy radiated from her as she felt the water and connected with nature. Children and adults alike need time to ‘just be’, especially during times like these. At Garrison, we truly value the opportunities we have to connect with nature, and improve our well being.”


Walking around the campus, you may find students socially distanced on blankets and enjoying their lunches under a tree. You’ll see girls having “old fashioned fun” by running up and rolling down hills, music teachers strumming their guitars while preschoolers joyfully sing along, students taking turns feeding the chickens and collecting eggs, and others participating in messy STEM experiments — giggling at their new discoveries.

SCHOOL SPOTLIGHT | Garrison Forest School

“The joy of just being back at school is clearly evident, and when we venture out to the outdoor classroom, you can feel the students’ energy grow even greater,” said STEM and Outdoor Education teacher, Tracey Brocato. “We are now able to conduct messy experiments with water and food color, engage in free exploration of water’s properties with numerous materials and have space to design and construct while maintaining a safe distance from one another, with room to run around when the urge emerges. It’s really a great feeling.”

In a time where traditional learning is being restructured, and new initiatives are being created each day, it’s nice to know that there are outdoor learning alternatives in our community that reconnect students to nature, and give girls a strong sense of security and discovery like they do at Garrison Forest.

To learn more about Garrison Forest School and their outdoor learning opportunities, visit their website.

Editor’s Note: This article is part of our School Spotlight Series. In this series, we spotlight our partner schools to give you a glimpse into what learning looks like on their campus. To learn more about Garrison Forest School, visit their directory listing in our Independent School Directory. Images were provided by the school. Want to become a school partner? Email us.

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Sandi Uehlinger

About the Author Sandi Uehlinger

Sandi Uehlinger is a mother, wife, daughter, sister, teacher, & friend who is in the constant pursuit of finding balance. Whether diving into a new classroom, traveling to new places, learning about the newest trends in education, or sitting and reading with her littles at home, she’s always up for a new adventure, (and she may or may not have a passion for the newest Starbucks drive thru.) As an educator, Sandi has almost 20 years of experience in the Baltimore public and private school systems.

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