Learning in the Park

Learning in the Park

If you drive by a Hopkins school, you may be surprised to see desks in the courtyards, canopies and pop-up tents for learning, and rustic classrooms in the woods around the school. You might even hear the Hopkins High School orchestra performing outside. Social distancing protocols require students to maintain six feet of distance while indoors, which has encouraged many teachers to embrace outdoor learning in an entirely new way. But two second-grade teachers at Eisenhower Community School, Spanish Immersion, and XinXing Academy — Lisa Hake and Abby Larson — wanted to take the concept of outdoor learning further. Together they created a pilot outdoor immersion classroom where the entire learning day is spent outside.

The pandemic gave them the momentum they needed to jumpstart this learning experience, but the two have shared a philosophy about outdoor learning long before COVID-19 was a term anyone would recognize. Over the last two years, Hopkins leaders were also thinking deeply about learning environments and how physical space can impact learning. As the pandemic disrupted traditional school, the District encouraged teachers to continue to think innovatively.

“Crisis can absolutely inspire innovation with the right mindset,” Eisenhower Assistant Principal Sara Schmidt said. “At Eisenhower we are taking advantage of this opportunity to ensure that we do not go back to 'normal' but rather create new systems that provide world-class experiences for all students." 

Hake and Larson were intentional about the learning conditions they wanted to create. Students of color are underrepresented in magnet programs. It was important that their class was inclusive and represented the population of the Eisenhower neighborhood. The class, which includes most of the Eisenhower second-graders who chose in-person learning, has a strong sense of community. The curriculum is mindfully anti-racist and focuses on the social-emotional needs of each student.

“We want kids to have confidence that they can learn anything and who they are as a person is a really important part of that,” said Hake.

The outdoor immersion class meets Monday through Thursday at the city-owned Maetzold Field in Hopkins. Students have access to baseball and soccer fields, a playground, woods to explore, and a sheltered pavilion with picnic tables for eating. If the weather makes it unsafe to be outdoors, learning can take place in the Hopkins Activity Center building, which is currently not running programming due to the pandemic. The City of Hopkins leased these spaces at no cost to Eisenhower for the 2020-21 school year.

“The City of Hopkins has been phenomenal to work with,” said Eisenhower Principal Melissa Ness. “They have gone above and beyond to support our outdoor immersion program.”

The world is their classroom
Looking through the eyes of a child, the outdoors is a magical place, full of learning that looks and feels a lot like an adventure. This is exactly the environment that Hake and Larson wanted. Although the students don’t always realize it, learning begins the minute they enter the park school. Instead of school bells signaling mandatory transitions, outdoor church bells help students keep track of the time.

“When we are talking about seven- and eight-year-olds, there is such an importance on play,” said Larson. “Unstructured play gives children a chance to make sense of their worlds.”

The outdoor immersion classroom naturally mirrors the goals of Vision 2031, the District’s strategic plan to transform what learning looks like. By its very design, an outdoor classroom is dynamic. The learning is inquiry-based and fluid. Students are asked to observe different elements in the park to complement corresponding lessons. Leaves on the trees, worms that show themselves after it rains, and ant hills have all captivated students’ attention. An entire life science unit can be improvised in moments fueled by the curiosity of the students.

Although it may look a little different, structured activities are still part of learning. Students learn reading, writing, science, social studies, and math just as they would in a traditional classroom. They also have access to gym, music, Spanish, and social-emotional curriculum. What does seem different is their ability to transition with ease and focus on the lecture. This is not by accident. Research supports a correlation between movement, better learning outcomes, and the positive effect that the outdoors has on the brain. In an outdoor classroom, it’s okay if a second-grader needs to wiggle, lie on their backs, or even crawl. This can have a profound impact on their ability to process the lesson and also how they feel about learning.

“We don’t have any issues with kids not wanting to sit down and learn when it’s time,” said Hake. “I have had to tell my students to stop doing math — they did not want to. They were completely engaged.”

But what about winter?
The question everyone asks is how an outdoor immersion classroom will be possible in a Minnesota winter. Hake and Larson have partnered with ResourceWest to ensure that all families have access to the clothing and gear their classroom requires. If it’s dangerously cold or not safe to be outdoors, the students have access to an indoor, heated learning space. And while it may not be possible to be outside 100 percent of the time in the winter, the plan is to continue outdoor learning as much as possible. A snowy winter could present a host of learning opportunities — snowshoeing through the park, writing letters in the snow, and building snow structures are all examples of how outdoor learning will adapt in the winter.

The second-graders have already faced a few rainy days that tested their resolve. Although the outdoor shelter was an option to stay dry, students were excited to put on their outdoor gear and brave the elements. As they splashed in puddles they pondered where rain comes from, how hard it would have to rain for it to hurt, and if rain has a taste. Having this collective adventure helps students build resilience and confidence.

“For some kids, you can see the heaviness of school lift off their shoulders, which has allowed them to relax and take things in,” said Hake. "They don’t realize they are learning and they can do things they have never done before.”