Fifth-graders at Glencliff Elementary School practically jumped out of their seats with excitement when their teacher Beth Montrello told them recently their next lesson would be held in the school’s new outdoor classroom on the Red Pine Trail adjacent to the elementary school.
“I felt like it was the best day ever,” fifth grader Alexis Shafer said. “The outdoor classroom is the best place in the world because you get to sit on benches and have a blackboard, and it is in the woods so you can hear nature and see nature."
His sentiments were echoed by his classmates as they made their way through the woods to a small clearing, taking their seats on six log benches facing a presentation table and blackboard. With a grand gesture, Mrs. Montrello unlocked the wooden doors to unveil the blackboard for the very first time, to an uproar of cheers from the students.
In the age of SmartBoards, why are these children so excited about a simple blackboard?
“It is a change from the usual, and that puts learning in a different light,” Mrs. Montrello said. She herself had scoured the school to find chalk, no longer a readily available resource with the boom of technology in the classroom. “Outside there is the freedom of creativity for students. It also allows for more generation of wonderings about nature and for how things work.”
The outdoor classroom is intended for a wide range of uses, from science to art.
“Our vision is for classes to be able to go out there for things like nature observation and writing, reading, for science lessons and activities including a pond-life study,” said Glencliff Principal Shelley Baldwin-Nye. “We also want to use it for social studies-related discussions on environment, groups who have lived from the land, and how land and natural resources affect economy and the community, and to use the natural environment as art.”
The outdoor classroom was created by Eagle Scout Chris Stroud, a former Glencliff student who is now a senior at Niskayuna High School. Stroud consulted with the school about his project and worked with a master woodworker through the Eagle Scout program to make sure his specs for the classroom were correct. He started the project several days before school started and put the final touches on it mid-September.
In just a few short weeks, Stroud’s classroom sanctuary has already been
sought-after by teachers and students alike.
“This space allows children to initiate their own learning experiences within the planned activities, with teachers available to support them,” said fourth-grade teacher Stephanie Venerus. “It promotes an inquiry-driven learning experience, balancing a child's goals and questions with state standards and expectations. It also encourages children to think of their impact on our environment as well as to be inspired by a different setting.”
On a recent fall day, there was a gentle breeze in the outdoor classroom. It resonated with the sounds of birds chirping and the occasional acorn being dropped by a squirrel.
The allure of nature has not gone unnoticed by the students. “It is a lot calmer than being inside. The outdoors has nice fresh air where inside it is stuffier,” Abbey Szepek said.
Her classmate Destiny Ali agreed. “We see animals and learn about nature. In a classroom you hear lots of noises from other classes, but outside all you hear is nature.”
Teachers plan to use the outdoor classroom throughout the school year – and they believe their students will be the better for it.
"They are thinking beyond the piece of paper,” Mrs. Montrello said. “The
outdoor classroom opens more avenues for different types of problem solving,
as well as more creative in depth learning.”
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