Nature and learning come together in outdoor learning space
Nestled in the trees behind Middlebrook School is an outdoor learning space, designed to amplify students’ learning experiences and inspire creativity.
The space was inspired by the concept of “nature deficit disorder,” a phrase coined by author Richard Louv in 2005 that refers to behavioral problems as a result of human beings, especially children, spending less time outdoors.
Although it is not an actual medical diagnosis in the DSM Manual, said Middlebrook physical education teacher Heather Schlitz, “it is an occurrence that has become so widespread in our society that we are noticing the many negative consequences of this digital age.”
“Today, kids are aware of the global threats to the environment, but their physical contact and intimacy with nature is fading,” she said.
“This is in part due to the increase of technological distractions, but also because we have more concerns about letting our kids out to play in the woods than we had in the past.”
Also, said Schlitz, a “growing body of research links our mental, physical and spiritual health directly to our association with nature in positive ways” and studies suggest that “thoughtful exposure to nature can even be a powerful form of therapy for attention deficit disorders and other maladies.”
“As an outdoor enthusiast, I found myself becoming passionate about giving our students here at Middlebrook an opportunity to reconnect and plug into nature,” she said.
Schlitz said she discussed the impact of nature with social studies teacher Cindy Beck-Moore and it led to “an extraordinary endeavor” — the creation of an outdoor learning space.
After receiving administrative approval, Beck-Moore cleared and laid and the groundwork for the space with her seventh grade green team as part of its annual Power of One community service project last spring.
“Seeing the students, parents and staff members come together to clear the untouched land was really the first time the space came alive and the students owned it,” she said.
“Their sense of pride in their accomplishment was palpable.”
The outdoor learning space is next to the climbing tower and softball field in the back of the school and has woodchips, pavers and rocks surrounding as its ground cover and border.
“Within in it are many trees and little nooks, where large boulders are located for sitting,” said Schlitz.
“In addition to the rock seats, people can now sit comfortably within our newest addition, the amphitheater, built by Trevor Lilly and Boy Scout Troop 125 earlier this fall.”
Schlitz said it has been “so amazing to see the truly collaborative effort and funding that has come forth in creating this space.”
The first phase of the project was completed and funded through the seventh grade green team’s collaboration with the Parent Teacher Association (PTA) during the Power of One project.
From there, eighth grade yellow team leader Heather Candles “caught wind of the project, and her team generously donated a portion of their year-end remaining budget to assist in the funding of phase one,” said Schlitz.
The installation of the amphitheater benches during the second phase, which earned Trevor an Eagle Scout Award, “truly makes it a learning space,” said Schlitz.
“Trevor and his troop raised money for their supplies by working with the local Wilton business community at large,” she said.
Although it may be necessary for teachers to allow technology during outdoor learning, said Schlitz, the space has a “device holder” because “ideally, the space should try to be used as a device-free space.”
The device holder was created by Wilton High School ninth grader Lizzie Yoon and her sister Abby Yoon, an eighth grader at Middlebrook, for their Girl Scout badge project with the help of Middlebrook art teacher Susan LaBarbara.
“Unlike television, nature does not deplete experiences, it amplifies them. Nature inspires creativity by demanding visualization and the full use of the senses,” said Schlitz.
“There is nothing like seeing a group of students ‘descreen’ and see the world around them.”
The outdoor learning space is open to the entire Middlebrook community and is intended to be used by “anyone who wants to bring authentic learning outside of the four walls of the classroom,” said Schlitz.
“The vision is to have any class out there. One day, there may be a music class out there participating in a drum circle, and the next day perhaps a science class goes out and has a discussion about indigenous species,” said Schlitz.
“There has been so much interest already, with teachers asking how to access the space, that the need to set up a reservation site became necessary.”
Schlitz said teachers may reserve the space ahead of time within Middlebrook’s shared Google Calendar and reservation center.
Although the space has not been officially unveiled — a ribbon-cutting ceremony is planned for early or mid-April — “many teachers have taken classes out there throughout the construction period,” said Schlitz.
Middlebrook’s Youth to Youth Club, led by Tanya Leonard, will conduct the third phase of the project later this spring, said Schlitz, which will involve clearing an extension of the land in order to start “a labyrinth build.”
The last stage will involve any students and staff members interested in beautifying the space with an arbor entrance, plants and flowers.
“The hope is that the space keeps evolving based upon the inspiration people experience when out there,” said Schlitz.