Stumps, Straw, and Chips: 2020 Classroom Building Begins!

Last week, NBC News ran a story that featured our colleagues at the Detroit Waldorf School, who are planning to open their classrooms entirely outdoors this fall. The writers pointed out that their back-to-school shopping list is a bit “unusual.” “The Detroit Waldorf School in Michigan is buying carriage bolts, berry bushes and 8,000 square feet of cedar wood,” the authors report.

Our own shopping list is somewhat unconventional too: In the past week, our campus has received shipments of wood chips, tree stumps, straw bales, shade sails, recycled wood, and Crazy Creek chairs. (We’re also stocking up on Humanity Shields and alcohol-based hand sanitizer.) We reported last week that our work on outdoor classrooms had started, and now, as supplies are arriving on campus, that work has begun in earnest!

In the photo to the left, Ms. Percey gives the 5th grade classroom a test run, with masked students seated on hay bales and fold-up chairs. What a lovely spot for our 5th graders to learn this year—and especially appropriate for the 5th grade botany block!

Beneath the shade of the oak trees in the Magic Forest, the 7th grade space is clearly marked with hay bales along its border, and tree stumps are set up at 6-foot intervals.

A family in our new mixed-age early childhood classroom Manzanita helps prepare the new play space for our smallest students.

We can’t wait to see the way our classrooms take shape over the next few weeks, as our teachers and parents bring their goodwill and creativity to the great outdoor classroom build out of 2020.

Imagining Grandmother Oak in Norse Mythology

This year, the oldest tree in our oak grove and the namesake of this website, Grandmother Oak, will shelter our fourth grade outdoor classroom.

“I painted Grandmother Oak on Monday when I was on the Faculty Planning call. I want to really get into the spirit of the tree and our fourth grade classroom,” says Ms. Stroud. 

She is already dreaming up ways that the tree will become a part of class lessons too. “I am also going to have to rename her after the great tree Yggdrassil which links the nine worlds of the ancient Norse cosmology,” she says. “Norse Myths are a central part of fourth grade!”

Second Nature: Learning Outdoors in Waldorf Education

This summer, our faculty and staff are busy creating beautiful, sun-shaded outdoor classrooms across our 11-acre campus so that our students may more safely return to in-person education in September. (Read more here.) While outdoor classrooms may sound nontraditional, learning outside is, in fact, nothing new in a Waldorf school.

In Waldorf education, building a relationship with nature is central to a child’s development. Time outdoors teaches children about the Earth’s natural rhythms and cycles, allows them to experience natural phenomena before studying them in a classroom, and fortifies the child’s relationship with and respect for the natural world. To learn more about Waldorf schools and their relationship with nature, please check out this wonderful piece, “Waldorf Education and the Nature Connection,” from the blog Loving Learning by our colleagues at Philly Waldorf School.

At Marin Waldorf School students in every grade, starting in preschool, spend a large part of their day outside, rain or shine. Kindergartners take weekly hikes in the hills near campus and learn that, as the saying goes, “there is no such things as bad weather, only bad clothes.”

Throughout the grades, the relationship with nature that was built in early childhood continues through gardening, environmental education, outdoor education trips, and weekly hikes off campus.

For many of our students, a snowy ascent up Mt. Shasta or jumping into nearby Miller Creek during an environmental education class may be among their best memories at school.

6th Grade class trip to Mount Diablo.

A group of kindergartners stops for a snack on their weekly hike to Dragon Mountain.
Third graders harvesting in our school’s garden.
A 6th grade social ethics class takes places in the shade of an oak tree on campus.
A group of first graders climbs a waterfall.

Like Marin Waldorf Schools, many Waldorf school across the country are finding its an easy transition to create safer outdoor classroom spaces for fall 2020. Sanderling Waldorf School in Vista, California, was recently featured on their local CBS station for creating an outdoor program. Watch the story here.

Atlanta Waldorf School was featured in the CNN article “More than ever, we need nature. It makes us and our children happier.”

The many benefits of connecting with nature and learning outside have been studied by scientists and psychologists—long before the pandemic made the reality of outdoor classrooms even more urgent. Here are a few of our favorite recent stories about outdoor learning.

The Great Outdoor Classrooms

At Marin Waldorf School, we nourish the relationship between children and the natural world. Starting in early childhood, our students spend ample time outdoors, playing, hiking, and lunching beneath the oak trees. As grades students, they hike in the open space that surrounds our school, care for and study our campus flora, and work in our school’s abundant garden.

We are building on that foundation now. This summer, we are creating open-air classrooms for each grade, scattered across our 13-acre campus. (In the drawing above, you can see a snippet of our reimagined campus map, with outdoor classrooms for each grade level.) The classrooms will allow for fresh air and maximum social distancing—and of course they will also be beautiful! To the left, our woodworking teacher Mr. Neale paints one of the blackboards that will be installed in each of the classrooms. Lap desks, hay bales, and sun shades will follow.

There is strong research to suggest that outdoor classrooms would be safer for students during a pandemic, but are they effective places to teach?

Last week, many people in our community noticed this fascinating story in the New York Times (right), which documents the use of outdoor classrooms in early 20th century New York to fight rampant tuberculosis infection in the city.

The article outlines the compelling safety reasons for building outdoor classrooms (“one of the few things we know about the coronavirus with any degree of certainty is that the risk of contracting it diminishes outside — a review of 7,000 cases in China recorded only one instance of fresh-air transmission”). However, it also outlines the emotional and pedagogical benefits of being outdoors.

Among other compelling research, author Ginia Bellafante shares the following: “A 2018 study conducted over an academic year looked at the emotional, cognitive and behavioral challenges facing 161 fifth graders. It found that those participating in an outdoor science class showed increased attention over those in a control group who continued to learn conventionally. At John M. Patterson, an elementary school in Philadelphia, suspensions went from 50 a year to zero after a playground was built in which students maintain a rain-garden and take gym and some science classes, the principal, Kenneth Jessup, told me.”

This morning, the Marin Independent Journal shared another story, “Marin school finds pandemic workaround: the outdoors,” about the local Terra Marin School in Mill Valley, which is going to be operating outdoors this fall.

We’ll be sharing more photos and updates of our classrooms this summer, as well as more research about the benefits of outdoor learning, so please follow along.