For everyone Making outdoor learning work for everyone

Ecole de plein air, Suresnes, France sometime during the 1930s, probably. (Image: Wikimedia Commons)

Making outdoor learning inclusive for all is at the heart of teacher Keetah Evans’s practice.

The great curve of history has a habit of circling in ever-repeating loops. One can only imagine what would happen if we paid those gyrations a little more heed. Way back in 1908, Providence-based doctors Mary S. Packard and Ellen A. Stone looked to the open-air classrooms popping up across Europe as a means to curb a tuberculosis outbreak in America. A wildly successful approach, schools all over the country popped up in barns with windows flung wide, on rooftops, boat decks and in parks. Not even winter’s chill could thwart the fightback. Instead, kids simply snuggled in Eskimo-style wraps, with their feet planted squarely on heated stones.

Oddly enough, the health benefits both physical and psychological of outdoor learning didn’t really stick, so much so that by the time the Spanish flu ravaged the world, America instead closed schools altogether. Flash forward a century and another global crisis in COVID, and Keetah Evans, an outdoor education and legal studies teacher at Rosebud Secondary College, wishes we’d learned more.

“Our classrooms are so closed in and we’re finding it hard to be socially isolated,” she says. “We just don’t have that luxury. So [outdoor learning] does provide an opportunity for that to occur in an interesting, fun space.”

‘It’s designed to be integrated into every curriculum. Anything that you can do in the indoor classroom, you can do in the outdoor classroom.’

Like Mary and Ellen before her, Keetah looked to the great example set by Europe. “If you look at a lot of Scandinavian countries, they do it so beautifully,” she says. “It’s ingrained in their culture, and they have amazing academic results – yet, we still haven’t put it on our curriculum.”

Crisis or not, she’s convinced outdoor learning should be an education priority, every bit as important as literacy and numeracy. “We are in the ‘education state’, so I find it bizarre that this isn’t something we’ve embraced more. Especially in these times when getting out in nature is so vitally important for every student stuck in lockdown.”

It’s what drove her to spearhead Rosebud SC’s application to the Andrews government’s Inclusive Schools Fund, so that the school could erect a purpose-built outdoor classroom. Securing the $200,000 grant, the result is a serene space shaded by a louvred roof, with a single wall accommodating a whiteboard. Surrounded by a herb garden, it has breakout spots and a trickling water feature.

Poster used in New York in the 1920s. (Photo: Library of Congress)

“We live in such a technology-dominated environment,” Keetah says. “I did a bit of psychology at uni and it was very evident that with this increased use, you actually have a decrease in all those feel-good hormones. We’re seeing big spikes in adolescent depression and ADHD. There’s strong evidence that kids are not going outdoors anymore, which can cause a lack of self-esteem.”

While students took to the outdoor classroom environment enthusiastically, teachers were a little hesitant to book it at first. “It does require effort to change where your classroom is, but on nice days, it’s highly sought after,” Keetah notes.
The calming effect on students is obvious. “It enables them to focus. We have a really strong wellbeing lens at the school and a lot of students needing help. If they end up feeling excluded in the classroom setting, by providing a space where they’re calm, it’s good for everyone.”

Keetah is personally invested. “I’ve always been obsessed with nature,” she says. “My mum wasn’t very well off. She was a single mother with four kids and every weekend and night was all about tiring us out on long, long walks, and creating resilience through that. So it’s ingrained in my psyche.”

Potted plants in Rosebud Secondary College's outdoor classroom. (Photo: supplied)

It’s why Keetah did a double degree in education and outdoor education, and a graduate certificate in education research. After the hullabaloo of 2020 is done with, she hopes to begin a PhD in technology and the environment. “It’s evident that teachers now are seeing technology as something that we need to embrace, so I’m hopefully going to be looking at how we actually integrate the two, rather than providing them separately.”

Her passion for the subject also drove her to become the AEU vice-president at Rosebud SC, and she hopes to continue to be a force pushing for outdoor learning. As she sees it, inclusivity is at the heart of the outdoor classroom setting. “Once I got to secondary school, the outdoor camps were very expensive. It was restricted to the students who could afford it, so I missed out on a lot. But I still loved the subject itself, so I want to make it more accessible.”

Centring outdoor learning means all kids can participate, regardless of their background or the subjects they’re studying. “It’s designed to be integrated into every curriculum. Anything that you can do in the classroom, you can do out there. It was taking it away from being a curriculum subject to actually being a pedagogy. So you can take science out there, you can teach maths. I often take my legal studies class there. It’s all-inclusive, not designed to leave anyone out.”

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