SPRING GROVE, Minn. — Kenzy Kraus and Maria Solberg started giggling over a toad they found in the grass last Wednesday morning. Were they going to follow it? Were they going to pick it up? The excitement was mounting for the two elementary students as they stood towering over their newfound curiosity.
“Oh, I touched it!” one of them exclaimed.
They were in the park a few blocks away from Spring Grove Public School. They weren’t at recess or on a field trip. Rather, It was just another day in one of three classes the school district moved to a nearly permanent outdoor setting.
As the school district began planning for the new academic year, it opted to experiment with an outdoor classroom model. Administrators spoke to teachers to gauge their interest and designated three multi-grade classes for the fresh air experiment.
In addition to giving students a little more elbow room during the pandemic era, Assistant Superintendent Gina Meinertz said the concept of an outdoor classroom also provides a natural drive toward learning.
“The research is: When we don’t have students outside, we’re missing the inquiry and curiosity part of learning,” Meinertz said. “I think they’ll learn just as much, if not more.”
The classes begin and end the day at the school building. Most of time in between, however, they spend outside in the park. In fact, the three classes can spend up to 90% of their time outdoors. Once the lunch hour rolls around, a van drives out to the park with all the meals the students and teachers will need.
The school met with the city to coordinate the use of the park. Each class has a picnic shelter with tables. The district is working to add some more walls to the shelter areas, making them three-sided structures.
The students even get to section off a little slice of the outdoors for themselves. In Stacey Schultz’s third-, fourth- and fifth-grade class, each student has what they call a “learning tree.” Maria’s tree, like those of the rest of the students, has a string around its trunk with a name tag attached. At times, the students go sit at their tree when they have an assignment to do.
“It’s like their desk,” Schultz said.
As the students were busy eating lunch Wednesday, an assortment of leaves covered the tables in the sheltered area. A little later, Schultz plugged a small machine into the outlet at the park shelter and helped the students laminate those bright red and yellow leaves they had collected from the grounds.
It was during that time that Kenzy and Maria and a few other students discovered the toad.
“Oh, I’ve seen two frogs today now,” one of the students said.
In mid-September, it was still warm enough for short-sleeves. However, the outdoor classes aren’t necessarily planning on backing down once Minnesota's cold weather kicks in.
Meinertz said they are going to try to be outside as much as possible going forward, even if that means only a little bit of time each day.
“There is a hope that we’re going to be outside all the way through,” she said. “I think we’re going to base it on the needs of the students, the parents, and the teachers as we get into the winter.”
Like Meinertz, Schultz stressed the importance of giving students enough free reign to allow their curiosity to drive their learning, describing it as “brain development.”
“You have to be a flexible teacher out here,” Schultz said.
Being so early in the year, Schultz is still in the process of helping students get to know each other and get used to their new classroom. Just recently, she’d been working on the concept of “perimeter” with her students, helping them understand the acceptable range they could use.
“That’s why it’s called ‘place-based education,' " Meinertz said. “It’s the place that brings you the questions. And then the role of the teacher is to know their (learning) standards and to fit their standards into some of that inquiry."