Stoddard Elementary School Brings Learning Outdoors

At the back of the James Faulkner Elementary School playground, where the wood chips meet the tree line, there is a low-key path. On a calm Monday mid-morning, it was easy to miss, but following the path marked by plastic-coated paper arrows revealed an unexpected scene.

In a small clearing surrounded by pine trees, Maggie Forrestall was giving a writing class to a group of grade 3 students. A giant pad of paper was leaning against a juniper bush as she crouched down next to each student – some sitting on folding stools and others directly on the exposed rock – to brainstorm ideas for writing real ones. personal stories.

The outdoor learning space, which has been dubbed Rock ‘n’ Roll by students, is one of many in elementary school. Further along the marked path is the base camp for the 3rd, 4th and 5th students – a strip of wood, with a fire pit and a blackboard, where each student can hang a hammock.

On the other side of the school, the youngest have their own base camp, which was created before the pandemic. Wooden planks placed on tree stumps form semi-circles around a small fireplace. Behind the school there are picnic tables, a garden and a greenhouse, as well as a black X-patterned siding in chalk to mark the place where students can have lunch a good distance from each other. others.

Even during the pre-pandemic days, Faulkner Elementary School focused on getting the kids out, with activities such as night canoe trips for grade 5 students and all-school hikes through. at Pitcher Mountain. But when the COVID-19 pandemic prompted educators to reconsider what safe education looks like, Stoddard Elementary School looked into these outdoor experiences.

Principal Allison Peterson said that while the school has started to make more use of outdoor spaces due to the public health crisis, their continued use has more to do with an evolving philosophy.

“As [the outdoor classrooms] continued to develop throughout the year I think … everyone started to realize the benefits of being outdoors. It wasn’t just about COVID anymore, ”she said. “… We are still covering the same program, we just changed locations. “

She added that it is not an easy process, that there is planning and pre-teaching, setting expectations for students about how they interact with each other and with the environment.

“But once you have put [the work] “she said,” it feels like it’s the healthiest and most fulfilling environment for children. “

Throughout the day, students can be discovered in the field. That morning, art teacher Tristan Bridges took the students outside to collect natural materials to use for the sculptures. As the Forrestall students worked hard to write in their notebooks, a group of grade 4 students walked through the nearby woods, looking for the perfect spot to film a Kid Governor campaign video. An hour later, the younger children had lunch outside, some sitting on blankets brought from the house.

Grade 2 student Ardelle Corliss said she preferred to be outside at school.

“You have to take your mask off and inside you have to put it on, and sometimes it helps to be outside. “

A recent Monday brought warm sunshine to Stoddard, and 5th grade student Mason Bodnar said these are the best days to use outdoor classrooms. They also offer a welcome escape from the routine of the office.

“It’s really great… when you’re in your hammock it’s great because you can work there independently instead of working at a desk,” he said.

Amanda Bridges, who teaches grades 4 and 5, said she has noticed how hammocks can help her learners.

The school has several students with sensory needs, she said, which means they sometimes need movement breaks, which can include a walk down the hall and missing part of a lesson.

But when classes are outside, she said the hammocks help these students stay focused.

“They get the vestibular entrance they need, rocking back and forth on their hammock, but they’re not distracting anyone else,” she said. “They’re not jumping up and down, they’re not waving… they’re there, engaged and involved.”

Bridges is no stranger to enjoying the outdoors. She is a former climbing instructor, hiking instructor and acrobatic course supervisor. This is Bridges’ seventh year at Faulkner, and although his early years were more traditional, his outdoor education experiences have proven to be useful since the start of the pandemic.

Earlier in the pandemic, when it emerged that the school would once again be able to offer in-person instruction, teachers began to realize that they would need more than one outdoor space to accommodate all of their children. students in complete safety.

“The troubleshooting was, I have the big kids, so we’re going to do a new one,” said Bridges, of the outdoor instruction areas. Her students got to work, learning how to use the tools safely to clean up the new base camp. And there have been other learning opportunities along the way.

The land is owned by the city, so teachers and students had to work with the board to get permission to use it – a good civic education lesson, Bridges said. The students also worked with the city to obtain a permit for the home.

After lunch and recess on Monday, the students in Grades 3 through 5 took up their hammocks and headed to their base camp for a “nap”.

Forrestall helped the students hang their hammocks, adjusting the height and length of the straps. A student asked her if she could use a saw to chop down a tree that was in the way of her hammock, and Forrestall suggested that she try to find an alternative.

“For now, I’d like to challenge you to find a spot that doesn’t involve sawing,” Forrestall told the student.

Outdoor classrooms are also conducive to the development of a range of skills, including problem solving and teamwork.

“There are times when being outside is impractical or not suitable for the activity, but I will say that having natural movements and transitions and the children take responsibility for the material is is learning, although not officially as part of the lesson. “

And just because the weather is getting colder doesn’t mean that students will soon be abandoning their base camps. Last year, children continued to use outdoor classrooms until February, Bridges said.

Principal Peterson said parents have only supported the outdoor initiatives. Looking to the future, it’s hard to predict how outdoor spaces will change or evolve, she said, because it’s really the students who are driving these developments.

“I have taught and led along the East Coast from Virginia to New Hampshire,” she said. “It’s my first time attending a small rural school, and every time I walk in I think about what it really should be like.”

These articles are shared by The Granite State News Collaborative partners. For more information, visit

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