Long before this year’s COVID-19 pandemic, the students at Roland Park Country School (RPCS) could be found outside for class. In the early 20th century, RPCS had open air classrooms, requiring students to come to school equipped with blankets, sweaters and felt boots. In fact, during the 1932-1933 school year, RPCS had the best health record of all schools in Baltimore, with no confirmed cases of infectious disease, which was attributed to the 60 degree classrooms.
As different as things are today, the emphasis on learning outside, particularly in the Lower School, is stronger than ever. For years, the school’s curriculum has focused on interdisciplinary lessons beyond the classroom walls that encourage problem solving and risk taking. Learning outdoors also empowers students to make healthy choices in their daily lives, helps them understand how humans interact with their environment and lets them discover how to become stewards of – and eventually leaders in – their communities.
“There are endless benefits to bringing education to the outdoors,” said Lisa Teeling, Head of the Lower School. “Nature has a calming influence on children and adults. It allows us to feel part of something greater than ourselves and reduces the stress that a typical school day can bring, especially now during COVID-19. Using our preschool as a model, we have built in ways to enhance the Lower School curriculum with creative uses of our beautiful campus.”
Lower School Outdoor Curriculum
Modeled after the Little Reds program, Roland Park Country School’s Reggio Emilia-inspired preschool for boys and girls ages 6 weeks to 5 years, the RPCS outdoor classrooms provide opportunities for Lower School teachers and students to apply their lessons in interdisciplinary ways. The art classes have always used the gardens and woods on campus for inspiration. Math classes use the outdoors to explore shapes, angles, measurement, probability and more. Not only have science classes used the outdoor garden as a major part of their units, last year, third graders learned about sustainable farming with chickens. They watched baby chicks hatch and conducted a study of how chickens on campus could support the dining hall with eggs. Now as fourth graders, they are building the coops to house the chickens in a spot they carefully researched and selected.
Fortunately, this intentional approach to outdoor learning is also helping our students and teachers stay healthy and well during this unusual year. “We were perfectly set up to take learning outdoors in what we know is a safe space for our students right now,” said Lisa. “Our campus and small class sizes allowed us to continue a full program with added benefits.”
The school divided the outdoor campus into zones to give teachers the opportunities to take their lessons outside and build upon the outdoor education already in place. For example, the music teacher is offering recorder classes in the courtyard and taking walks through the woods to teach the complexity of bird sounds. Every student has their own bag of chalk as the walls and walkways have become canvases for murals. The girls are even more in tune with changes in the weather and the progression of plants in the gardens as they read, play, and construct outside each day.
Gardening and Environmental Education
Building a love of nature, and learning to respect and care for it, is at the heart of outdoor education at RPCS. The Lower School has traditionally focused on environmental education and students are often eager to get their hands dirty in one of the six gardens on campus. The school’s Garden Educator, Cheryl Carmona, coordinates outdoor learning for students in preschool through sixth grade in gardens that produce healthy food and herbs, create safe rainwater runoff, encourage butterflies and bees to survive, teach about native plants, and line our playgrounds and Backwoods. Students learn about everything from plant life cycles to the benefits of biodiversity, safe management of food and trash waste, storm water runoff, and how to deal with erosion and invasive species in our woods. For example, fourth graders study the many benefits of healthy composting, while they build and care for a compost pile recycling the plant materials from the school gardens at the end of every season and the second and third graders grow a three sisters garden (corn, bean and squash) where they learn about growing grains and preserving food for the long cold winter and the cultural history of this process. By posing questions and learning about the world around them, the Lower School students are also introduced to concepts of environmental sustainability and social justice.
Last year, the school built an outdoor makerspace which both the preschool and Lower School students love. Using natural resources and materials carefully curated for building and engineering activities, students work together to explore a variety of ideas and solve an assortment of problems. The ability to freely explore ideas and collaborate with others is enhanced in the outdoor setting and this year, the makerspace is in use every day.
In addition, RPCS maintains the Backwoods, five acres of old growth forest under forest conservation, as an outdoor classroom. Students of all ages explore, discover and investigate this area, which includes a high oak canopy, native Maryland trees and perennial plants, wildlife, a spring-fed stream, a gazebo, a bridge, and a dam and spring house built in the 1850s. It’s also used as an outdoor classroom for many purposes including: stream water quality testing, multi-sensory nature walks, nature poetry writing, habitat studies, and stewardship activities, such as invasive plant removal and tree planting.
With authentic, hands-on learning opportunities that activate the sense and provide a context for the cognitive skills RPCS students are developing this school year, the outdoor learning classrooms are proving to be a timeless method of instruction! To learn more about Roland Park Country School, visit www.rpcs.org.
Editor’s Note: This article is sponsored by Roland Park Country School.