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Getting Outside for Learning and Fresh Air

Exercises Outdoors

Getting Outside for Learning and Fresh Air

By Louise Brown - December 2020

As if by magic, an east-end school got eight brand new classrooms this fall, each with its own blackboard and seats, set safely apart.

They appeared almost overnight, just days before school began. But they have no roof or walls – these are open-air learning spaces set up on the grounds of Secord Elementary School to give students a place to learn outdoors, where COVID-19 is less likely to spread. The blackboards are hung on the fence. The seats are sections of tree stumps.

This new fresh-air “wing” was largely the work of parent volunteers in the high-rise school community near Danforth Ave. and Main St., who were eager for their children to spend more time at school outside because of the pandemic. Principal George Vlahos was on board every step of the way, says parent Phil Pothen, a lawyer and landscape architect who designed the classrooms in the summer. When parents wanted to spray-paint lines on the ground to mark the “walls” of each outdoor classroom, “the school bought line-painting machines and gave us free rein. The principal was outstanding.” And if snow ends up hiding those lines, no problem, says Vlahos. “We’ll get cones.”

When it looked like students wouldn’t be able to eat lunch outside because there was nowhere to wash their hands, Pothen recalls the principal saying, “Well, if I buy three fish-cleaning sinks from Walmart, we’ll have hand-washing stations outside. Problem solved.”

And to help make sure all students are warm enough to stay outside, Secord’s  school council ran a winter clothing drive and washed all the donations so they’re ready for use as a sort of clothing bank.

“All these things have helped make it possible for us to be outside, because we know the transmission rates of Covid are much lower there,” says Secord Physical Education teacher Nancy Whitley, who plans to teach football and soccer outside this winter. “Anything you can do on grass is even more fun on snow,” she says. “This year is going to be one big outdoor Snowfest!”

Outdoor Learning

Secord is one of the more dramatic examples of how schools across the Toronto District School Board are taking students outside to learn this fall, where fresh air makes the spread of the virus less risky. It’s something the board would like all schools to do as much as possible, and in December, Trustees are to consider a plan for providing more support for outdoor learning, with a possible pilot project of intensive support to 24 schools to start.

It’s the next level of Covid-sensitive learning; it moves the dial from opening classroom windows to actual open-air learning.

But it’s not just because of Covid alone, notes David Hawker-Budlovsky, the Board’s centrally assigned principal for outdoor education.

Learning outside can be more engaging.

“Going outside is not just play and recess, although there’s a place for that. It’s actually very good pedagogy, with planning by the teachers – it engages students,” he says. “There’s a lot of research about how physical activity can help children’s ability to focus for longer periods of time.”

You can teach math through patterns in nature, he suggests, or science through the biodiversity of plants. You can introduce art appreciation by touring street art, and social studies by mapping your neighbourhood. There’s no limit to how to bring curriculum to life outdoors.

But Hawker-Budlovsky knows not all teachers are confident taking programs outside, so his office will send outdoor specialists to schools, upon request, to run lessons in schoolyards and nearby ravines. One of them visited a kindergarten class recently at Selwyn Public School for what teacher Farah Virji called “engaging activity all about birds. We listened to stories outside, moved like the wind and built bird feeders!”

There’s a treasure trove of more than 150 outdoor lesson plans ready for use on the Toronto Outdoor Education Schools website.

Educators also can call for suggestions on how to run their own programs outside, as teachers of more than 5,000 students have done already this year.  Hawker-Budlovsky says his department has 800 visits booked for January, half of them with virtual classrooms.

Meanwhile, many classes are already outside, dreaming up fresh-air twists on curriculum – even if they don’t have the sprawling outdoor space of Secord.

Boy in mud kitchen wearing mask

At Rose Ave. Public School in the heart of St. Jamestown – a big inner-city school with limited green space – kindergarten teacher Jenny Lee Shee takes her class out three times a day. They explore biodiversity by matching leaves and butterflies to pictures on a chart – “and a ladybug happened to land on one of our students the day we were looking at beetles, which was pretty magical,” she says. They watched to see if squirrels would eat pieces of pumpkin left in the yard (no!) They’re observing how pigeons behave. Lee Shee takes art supplies outside, and uses a large new double-sided blackboard mounted permanently in the playground. There’s a mud kitchen where kids can “cook” acorns and pine cones.

And often there’s music playing from her bluetooth speaker during these outdoor adventures.  “A lot of our community live in high-rises and many didn’t leave their homes during lockdown, so I think fresh air and sunshine and noticing the seasons change is kind of magical for them.

“I personally love nature, and I find a lot of behavior problems tend to disappear when you’re outside because kids are super-engaged,” says Lee Shee. “They’ve got fresh air, and they’ve got a chance to move their bodies and not always be sitting in a small stuffy classroom. It mitigates a lot of behavior, because kids who have trouble sitting can move around - and that’s okay when you’re outside.”

Kindergarten teachers have been among the first to embrace outdoor learning during the pandemic, partly because the curriculum has so many links to things that are found outside.

Including car tires.

Child with bird chart wearing mask

“I try to make it outside for part of every day for an activity,” says kindergarten teacher Angelique Campbell at Rolph Road Elementary School in Leaside.

For math, she used outdoor car tires that are scattered in the playground to create a life-sized “10 frame,” which is an image featuring 10 squares used to help teach children learn to count. It’s usually on paper, but they built a life-sized “10 frame” with tires - five on top, five on the bottom.

“We had one child step into the 10 frame and took a picture, and then asked, ‘If we add one more kid, then how many will we have in our 10 frame?’ It was a fun way to teach about counting, and we use the pictures on our Number Wall in the classroom.  It really gives them a concrete example of what each number looks like.”

For language, Campbell took wooden letters outside and hid them throughout the yard for an alphabet scavenger hunt. In the fall, she says “the kids were really excited to write their names in the soil. I will definitely do that in the snow too, with sticks and with markers.”

But school isn’t solely about academics. To nurture children’s mental health, Campbell has done yoga outside with her students, and had them draw faces with sticks and stones to express how they’re feeling.

Like many teachers this year, Campbell has made up an “outdoor learning bag” for each child by filling a Ziploc with things like crayons, paper, magnifying glass so they don’t share materials. Each child has their own outdoor clipboard. “With Covid, you can’t really take toys outside, because how would you sanitize them? But it’s really amazing to see how children use their imagination when they just have nature.”

Kindergarten teacher Farah Virji bought a clear plastic shower curtain from Dollarama to make a “One Hundred Board” for math outside, by laying the shower curtain on the ground and drawing 100 squares on it with a ruler and marker. They use it do math with “treasures” they find in nature.

“We’re using the outdoors as much as we can to bring in math concepts,” says Virji, who takes her students outside twice a day. They bring iPads outside so the students can photograph shapes they see. They bring magnifying glasses. They’ve brought out watercolour paints. They do Phys. Ed. outside. They took a neighbourhood walk to look for two-dimensional shapes in the community near St. Clair Ave. and O’Connor Ave.

“I’m planning to keep taking them outside as much as possible throughout the winter,” she says, and has asked parents to send extra mittens and socks.

Girls Gardening

At Topcliff Public School in the Jane-Finch neighbourhood, kindergarten teacher Tracy Grant’s students are doing a nature inquiry outside this year about trees.

“At the beginning, we just went for a walk and started to collect things we found – acorns, leaves, pine cones, sticks – and that led to discussions of, ‘Where are they coming from?’ So we connected them to trees, and we used magnifying glasses to look at these things.” Grant will have students do bark-rubbings with paper and crayons to explore the texture of trees, and then talk about why we need trees.

“There’s a lot of learning you can take outside within your community; it’s just a matter of trying to be creative. Geometry? Take a walk in neighborhood to look at shapes. You could work on measurement easily outside. A lot of kindergarten program is inquiry connected to the environment and that leads us outdoors.

“Learning does not always have to be within four walls.”

Outdoor learning, while terrific for kindergarten, can be good for any age – especially during a pandemic, insists kindergarten teacher Daniela Lombardo of Oriole Park Junior Public School.

“Now more than ever we need to be teaching kids to be outside and slow down and look closely at the world around them. Kids spend a lot of time indoors and on devices and in structured activities – especially this year – so bringing learning outside can let them see things might have to change.”

Her students were collecting leaves this fall when the wind was blowing everything everywhere, and it changed how they had to do things. “I think an outdoor classroom provides the possibility of problem-solving in new ways. And it teaches resilience. It might be a little cold, but we’re still outside, and we can make changes to what we do so we still have a great experience.”

Lombardo takes kindergarten students outside three times a week to learn how to explore the outdoor world.

“How do we use our senses? How do we look closely? How do we listen to things around us? How can we draw what we see? What does it mean to us? It’s a constant exploration of the outdoors through all the seasons.” Each student will pick an individual tree to study throughout the year.

Lombardo also finds outdoor learning can provide a way to connect students with indigenous knowledge, an expectation woven throughout the Ontario curriculum. Every morning she takes her class outside and has each student greet some part of nature.

Kâpapâmahchakwêw—Wandering Spirit School is a Kindergarten to Grade 12 Indigenous-focused school founded in 1977 by Elder Pauline Shirt and co-founded by the late Elder Vern Harper.

Indigenous land-based learning is a central focus at the school because of the deep relationship between land and Indigenous Peoples, says Tanya Senk Principal of Kâpapâmahchakwêw and Centrally Assigned Principal of the Urban Indigenous Education Centre of Excellence (UIEC).

Indigenous land-based learning is at the heart of Indigenous ways of knowing and being and provides meaningful opportunities for Indigenous students to connect with Indigenous languages and cultures, Senk says.

Children at Kâpapâmahchakwêw have been outside this fall learning to play lacrosse, making wampum belts and helping to erect a tipi under the guidance of Indigenous cultures and traditions instructors.

“We know that land-based education is good for everybody,” says Principal Tanya Senk, who is of Métis, Cree and Saulteaux heritage. “The relationship to the land is fundamental to the spiritual, emotional, intellectual and physical well-being of Indigenous students and communities.”

“Learning in an outdoor environment also has holistic health benefits,” she adds. “It can support students in developing environmental awareness and a connection to the land. We engage in teaching Indigenous ways of knowing and being, as well the historical and contemporary contexts of the land in relationship with Indigenous Peoples.”

“When families, students and staff came together to plant new trees this fall, as part of a pollinator garden project which was led by the School Council, we engaged in opportunities to learn from the land and how to care for trees and shrubs,” says Senk.

“In Indigenous ways of knowing, everything is interconnected and interrelated, and that’s why we refer to the earth as Mother Earth - because she sustains us with her gifts. There’s a belief that the land does not belong to us, but we belong to the land and it is our responsibility to take care of it.”

The UIEC leads Indigenous Education at the TDSB and provides professional learning and resources to educators who want to centre Indigenous perspectives across the curriculum, including land-based learning, says Senk. For many years, the UIEC has collaborated with the Outdoor Education team to deepen understandings of Indigenous ways of knowing and being, says Senk.

Currently, the UIEC has virtual drop-in hours where educators can connect with instructional leaders for support and resources for Indigenous Education and to access Indigenous artists and speakers to deepen knowledge and understanding.

“There are opportunities to re-think, re-imagine and re-envision education,” she says. “You don’t have to be in bricks and mortar. An Indigenous way of knowing and being is like a circle and we’re sitting in classes with corners. So, when you’re outside you get that 360-circular opportunity to engage.”

Etobicoke special education teacher Erich Shih found that taking his students to nearby Centennial Park was a powerful way to introduce the subject of Indigenous land rights.

“Because they have special needs, it helps to be more experiential when you’re talking about something like treaties,” says Shih, who teaches students with mild intellectual delay at Hollycrest Middle School near Eglinton Ave. W. and Renforth Dr. to teach students about something as complex as treaties, Shih felt it made sense to bring them to the land and let them begin to develop a relationship with nature. He took the Grade 6, 7 and 8 students in his small class to nearby Centennial Park and asked them to sit quietly and listen to what’s happening around them.

As someone who moved to Canada 12 years ago from the Philippines,  Shih says he is still amazed at the green space in Toronto, but knows not all students have the opportunity to explore it. As they sat that day in the park listening to sounds, he noticed most of them could not distinguish the drone of nearby traffic.

“Eventually they realized the buzzing was the sound of cars, and they started to hear the sounds of nature too, and the wind, and the rustling of leaves and some birds, and they began to relax and be calm. Some of my students have anxiety and trouble calming down, so it was eye-opening for us how you can just sit down in nature and relax. Some of them had never had that experience.

“As an immigrant,” says Shih, “I want to experience the city with my class, but we can’t do TTC field trips right now because of Covid, so instead I make it a point to go to Centennial Park. It’s good for students to see there’s more than indoor life during the pandemic.”

Being outdoors has also been therapeutic for the students in Diana Hernandez’ special class for young refugees and new Canadians in at Thorncliffe Park Public School in East York. Three years ago she and her students converted a forgotten, overgrown courtyard outside their classroom door into a hidden garden of flowers and herbs and patio stones, with tables and white board for teaching.

Her students have used it this fall to do math and language outside - and also weeded the beds of lavender, tulips, roses, mint and bee balm, which many of her students remember from having family gardens in their home country.

“They shine by working in the garden, when they cannot shine in the big classroom. This school is in a community with humongous apartment buildings where they have very little outside space, so I will keep bringing students outside in the winter as much as possible, because they can take their masks off and we have lots of distance. They love it.”

Outdoor learning should be more than just taking indoor lessons outside, says Melina Ciaccia, who teaches Grade 4 and 5 at Westmount Junior School near Scarlett Road and Eglinton Ave.

“You have to re-imagine what learning can be like, and you don’t always need to be sitting down for a lesson. I’m trying to look beyond just replicating what’s in the classroom. That’s why I want to do community walks and link them to everything from health and Phys. Ed. to art and social studies and even science. You can use loose parts in nature for temporary art.”

Ciaccia has booked outdoor specialists from Hawker-Budlovsky’s department to come to the school twice and run lessons in the nearby ravine that combine math, social studies and science.  She’s also considering doing professional development herself with his department for ideas on how to teach literacy and math outdoors, and has checked out some of the lesson plans from the Outdoor Education website, which “look amazing.

“As it gets colder, we’ll have to problem-solve, but we’ll figure it out as we go along.” And she has put out a call to families for milk crates, which students can use to carry supplies outside in, then turn over and use as seats.

Boomerangs – actual flying boomerangs – were in the air outside Cedarbrae Collegiate this fall, where teacher Paul Andolina’s Grade 11 Tech Design students tested the aerodynamics of the plywood boomerangs they had to build. Inside the shop, they learned to use jigsaws, bandsaws and scroll saws, as well as belt sanders and spindle sanders – even soldering irons to burn on decorative logos. Along the way, they had to take the boomerangs outside for eight different flight tests.

“One of the boomerangs got stuck in a tree, but the kids came up with a plan to knock it down, and sure enough they did,” says Andolina, whose next class project might be catapults – which, like boomerangs, are best tested outdoors.

“Kids bought into it. They were so excited to get outside and try their boomerangs. It’s a perfect example of how you can go outside to learn, and we try to get the kids outside as much as we can.”

The need to wear masks inside has had a particular impact on teaching Phys. Ed. and Drama, where most classes have moved outside.

Students even switched to something called Shadow Tag instead of regular tag at Oriole Park Junior Public School, now that Phys. Ed. is “touchless.” You tag someone’s shadow instead of their body, explains teacher Michelle Paradis, who takes her students outside almost every day for either gym or Drama, both of which she believes can be stress-relievers.

Being outside also give kids a break from wearing masks, and not surprisingly, teaching Drama is more effective without faces being covered.

“From a mental health angle, I’m definitely doing more Drama with the kids this year, because this has been a very difficult time for everybody because of Covid,” says Paradis. “Part of the Drama curriculum is to provide an outlet for students to express their ideas and emotions through the arts.” It helps that there’s an outdoor stage in the schoolyard.

Likewise, part of the yard at RH McGregor Elementary School also feels a bit like a theatre and lends itself to teaching Drama outdoors, says teacher Tina Tzatzanis. When students sit on the steps apart from each other, they can take off their masks, but must put them back on if they’re working in pairs or small groups at the school near Coxwell Ave. and Danforth Ave.

“It’s nice when they take their masks off, because you can see their smiles!” she says.  For Drama outside with younger children, she’s been doing a lot of “frozen scenes” or “tableaus” from story books, and recently they’ve started to use mime to re-tell stories outside.

The schoolyard proved a rich setting to re-enact author Robert Munsch’s beloved Paper Bag Princess. Tzatzanis drew up a map that students had to follow throughout the playground, over “mountains” (benches) and around “rivers” (lines on the pavement) to find the “dragon” (a stuffed animal) hidden in the “castle” (a pylon with a picture of a castle taped on top.)  They sang a lullaby together to put the dragon to sleep.

“Being outside is far better than trying to do Drama wearing masks in classes where students have to stay in their own area,” she says. “We’re doing Dance next term – I think there’s going to be a lot of dancing in boots and snowpants.”

Teaching outdoors often means being resourceful about something as simple as where to sit. Some teachers cut yoga mats into squares, others bring fold-out chairs and many simply use the rocks and tree roots in their schoolyards.

At Secord, parents arranged for a truck full of tree stumps to be donated by a tree removal company; it saved them the dumping fees, says parent Phil Pothen. They put out a call for a parent with a chainsaw to help chop them up. As for the outdoor blackboards, parents built a plywood sign for each class to hang on the fence, with blackboard paint on the side facing the students, and painted art (“Stay safe!”) on the side facing the street.

Secord plans to keep running its weekly school-wide outdoor exercise class every Friday throughout the winter. Called Fitness Fridays, they feature a rotating group of Grade 4, 5 and 6 students who lead the entire school in exercises through three songs, from their spot on an elevated part of the schoolyard. Phys. Ed. teacher Eliza McAllister trains students to run the musical workout each week as a leadership experience.  

“They really enjoy leading, and it’s so good for everyone’s mental health and school spirit, although I had a bit of pushback at first from boys not wanting to do it,” she admits. McAllister suggested they do it in an all-boy group, and in costume, with Halloween approaching. They agreed.

“I choreographed some simple dance moves for the Monster Mash and Time Warp, and taught the boys the moves and they dressed up in costume and led the exercises and it was very exciting to see!”

Even Secord teachers join in on Fitness Fridays – especially when the principal adds a song from the 80s (WHAM!) – and it’s a great way to boost spirits, she says.Children get such a thrill being out there together as a whole school; it’s such a positive experience. It makes their week.”

Colleague Nancy Whitley admits “Something like ice will be the one tricky thing,  but we’ll try to tough it out. We’re all-weather!”

Being adaptable is a lesson Tina Tzatzanis believes kids will learn from outside learning this year.

“I know a teacher who used to tell her classes that when things change, you have be able to change with them – and she would do this wave motion with her arm and say ‘We’ve got to go with the flow!’ Things are not always going to be exactly the same every day, and we have to adapt and do the best we can,” says the teacher at RH McGregor.

“These days we’re all in a sort of survival mode each day, but when I’m outside with the kids and I’ve got my Bluetooth speaker and we put on some music and they’re laughing, they’re smiling, and they’re happy and getting some physical activity, we’re doing the best we can.”

If all-weather education keeps going after Covid, it would be terrific for not only students, but for the whole planet, says David Hawker-Budlovsky.

“If there’s anything positive that comes out of Covid, for me, it’s that hope that outdoor learning will grow and continue out of the pandemic - because it’s good for kids. There’s a huge environmental stewardship that comes along with the climate crisis that we’re in and the only way we’re going to get a generation who care about their environment is to be able to connect with their environment.

“To be able learn, play and understand the intimate connection to the world around us, and to ourselves, is good for humanity moving forward.”