Garden as Outdoor Classroom & Co-Teacher: Part 1

The premise of EartHand is that education is one of the keys to sparking social shifts toward a sustainable society.  EartHand’s board member Dr. Susan Gerofsky is deeply engaged in ecologically-based pedagogy in her work at the UBC Orchard Garden, and in this first of a two-part guest post she reflects on conventional classrooms and introduces the potential of an outdoor classroom to be a “co-teacher.”

It’s January, and it’s back-to-school time. For most teachers and learners, school is closely associated with the built environment of traditional classrooms: four square walls, rows of desks, blackboards and whiteboards, projectors and screens, banks of fluorescent lights. The indoor classroom provides a warm, dry, well-lit place to be on a cold, rainy day, and is planned to offer ergonomic support for individual student learning activities. It is also a product of the industrial age, designed so that a large group of students may be controlled in their movements and regulated by a single teacher, and so that efficiency, punctuality and quiet industriousness at individual work stations are instilled in young learners. These qualities were thought to be valuable for a population preparing for assembly line work (or its white collar equivalents), but they may not be the only goals that are helpful for kids in our contemporary, rapidly changing world.

What about the idea of getting outside the four walls of a traditional classroom to learn? What might an outdoor classroom be like? At first, people often think of an outdoor classroom as simply an indoor classroom transposed to the outside: an outdoor amphitheatre with rows or banks of seats and desks, outdoor whiteboards, projector and screen, electrical outlets, and a roof to keep the rain off. But an outdoor classroom does not have to be an echo of the stereotypical indoor classroom. Outdoor classrooms can contribute in new ways to kids’ learning when a more naturalized ecosystem is respected as a co-teacher, and where learners get the chance to move, explore, listen and observe a world where everything is alive.

Gardens and other outdoor classrooms offer the simple but increasingly rare experience of being outdoors, in all kinds of weather, observing the cycles of the sun and rain, feeling the texture of the soil, smelling the air, noticing the shapes and patterns of plants in an ecosystem, getting ‘up close’ with bees, worms and birds and learning about their ways. Many people have very little time outdoors, and generations of children may be growing up with ‘nature deficit disorder’ (as Richard Louv named it in his book, Last Child in the Woods). Spending time in the living world outdoors has been shown to help people relax, experience greater physical and mental health and well-being, and feel gratitude and empathy through a sense of connectedness with all living things. This is a very important kind of learning too.

A beach, garden, forest, park, prairie, mountainside, marsh or shoreline – all kinds of naturalized places can be taken as outdoor classrooms, where students can learn in and from living systems. Some of these places are more or less human-influenced, others more wild or feral. No outdoor classroom will be completely ‘natural’ (i.e. an other-than-human space), and it is certainly helpful to think about human needs in these outdoors classrooms: ways to draw, write and read outdoors; places to warm up or shelter from inclement weather; ways to sit as well as stand, crouch or climb; providing bathrooms and water, first aid kits and snacks, transportation and communication. However it is also important to think about the ways that a classroom where everything is alive is very different from a typical indoor school classroom, and how it offers very different kinds of learning possibilities.

Dr. Susan Gerofsky is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Curriculum and Pedagogy at UBC and a member of the Board of EartHand Gleaners Society.