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A North Carolina Principal Rethinks The Classroom And Brings Students Outdoors

Students at Foust Elementary School in Greensboro, North Carolina gather in an outdoor classroom.
Nicholas L. Dixon
Students at Foust Elementary School in Greensboro, North Carolina gather in an outdoor classroom.

Last year's COVID-19 lockdown disrupted the idea of school as we know it and it forced educators to think outside of the box. For one elementary school principal in North Carolina, thinking outside of the box had him heading outside — literally.

Nicholas L. Dixon, principal of Foust Elementary School in Greensboro, had long been a supporter of outdoor learning, so when his school won a grant of $13,000 from the North Carolina Outdoor Heritage Advisory Council last year, he knew exactly what he wanted to do with the windfall: build an outdoor classroom that would inspire not only students but teachers as well.

Dixon used the money to order the needed supplies and, with the support of an enthusiastic school district and maintenance workers who took care of clearing the needed space and installing the equipment, Dixon's dream was realized within two weeks. Desks and chairs fashioned to look like logs filled an outdoor classroom area, with enough space between them to facilitate social distancing protocols. There's even a waterproof chalkboard.

The school was able to debut the outdoor space in December, right around the time students first began returning for in-person lessons and were adjusting to a new normal. First-graders were among the first to try out the space and luckily, Dixon told NPR, it was an instant hit — and it still is today.

"[The] kids were very excited when we got out there and they quickly realized that learning is still happening, this isn't playground equipment [but] we're having fun," Dixon said. "Just the fact that they were able to look up into the sky and see birds and hear sounds that were so familiar to them and be out there in that space — I feel like it has tapped into multiple senses and they were able to really focus on learning as well."

Foust Elementary serves students from pre-k to fifth grade and students of every grade level have had opportunities to use the space. Unsurprisingly, the kids are always excited to be outside during the school day and even the parents are fans.

"One of our kindergarten teachers last year held a model lesson in a classroom and [the parents] were just really enthralled by it," Dixon said. "[They wanted to know] how often do we do this, this is something we want, are there more like this? They had so many questions about it, about how they can support the expansion of it, and so it was really good to see parents engage with it and really [be able to] ignite even their passion for creating more spaces across the district."

Students at Foust Elementary School in Greensboro, N.C., enjoy a lesson outside.
/ Nicholas L. Dixon
Nicholas L. Dixon
Students at Foust Elementary School in Greensboro, N.C., enjoy a lesson outside.

Dixon hopes that this is just the beginning

Research has shown that being outside can positively affect students. Learning outside can improve children's performance and behavior and can lead to strengthened connections among families and the community, according to a report issued by the University of Wisconsin–Stevens Point. Outdoor learning also has benefits for students with learning disorders: a 2009 study showed that just being outside and taking a walk in a "green space" greatly reduced symptoms of attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) in children, regardless of age, gender or income level.

With students returning to in-person lessons amid a pandemic, Dixon saw a potential challenge in helping kids adjust and the opportunity for a creative solution.

"The pandemic allowed us to reinvent, reimagine and redo things," he explained. "And so we wanted to make sure when kids came back, they felt like there was [not just] something new, but something new and exciting for them, something that really feeds into their social and emotional wellness."

"There's a lot of research about the traumatic effects of the pandemic and how we can meet those therapeutic needs and the outdoor space ... Just being out there, even if we're just out there meditating, sitting, listening to music, it just does something for us and for our kids," he explained.

The school district is a huge supporter of outdoor learning spaces and would like to see more schools, from elementary to high schools, outfitted with more outdoor spaces, Dixon said. Foust Elementary in particular is set to be rebuilt in the coming years. It's on the cusp of entering the design phase and Dixon hopes that that will be the perfect opportunity to incorporate more hybrid spaces: picture a covered outdoor classroom to protect students from the elements or classrooms that, say, have a retractable wall or are able to otherwise open up to be partially outdoors, providing flexibility to a traditional classroom setting, Dixon explained.

For now, teachers are constantly innovating with the space that they do have. Foust's outdoor classroom is a great space for students to perform experiments, Dixon said. Music teachers are even considering how they can incorporate the natural sounds of birds singing into their lessons. The options are virtually endless.

Educators have continued to excel amid increasingly difficult circumstances

The pandemic has been hard on educators, but teachers across the country have been finding unique solutions to the problem of how to teach and engage students during a global pandemic.

Earlier this year, a kindergarten teacher in Seattle was applauded on social media after a heartwarming video circulated that showed him taking his class on an online field trip to the zoo. Another teacher in Iowa came up with a series of special greetings to help her students get excited about coming to school every morning even while having to social distance.

For Dixon, as difficult as this pandemic has been, it's an opportunity.

"I think this is the time to innovate ... to reimagine," Dixon said. He added later, "I'd push every educator to think about the fact that [the] outdoors will always be here for us. There are spaces everywhere that we can transform into a learning environment. You just look at the research that supports learning outside — it supports the development of our kids' awareness, socially and emotionally — and I say make it happen."

"Even if you have a lean budget or a budget that has a countless amount of cash, you can make an outdoor space happen for you and your students and teachers will really appreciate it."

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.