Planting the Seed for Outdoor Classrooms
As districts struggle to address childhood obesity and academic gaps, renovating school sites and adding “outdoor classrooms” is becoming a national model. Educators in Houston are latching on to the idea and are engaging students with science and nature right outside the classroom.
After Houston Independent School District superintendent Abelardo Saavedra made a pledge last year to the National Wildlife Federation to install schoolyard habitats at each of the district’s nearly 200 elementary schools within the next five years, an environmental wellspring of innovative ideas has sprung up through the district that officials say is part of an ongoing effort to get all kids excited about the world around them.
The pledge was made at the district’s first annual environmental education summit, in which teachers and administrators gathered and met with nearly 50 business and nonprofit groups such as Urban Harvest and the Texas Forestry Association to discuss ideas and forge community partnerships.
“We want to involve not just teachers in these programs but the entire school and surrounding community,” says HISD elementary science curriculum manager Sandra Antalis.
About 100 campuses currently have elements of habitats, ranging from courtyard ponds to container gardens to butterfly habitats, and nearly 20 schools have environmental programs funded by grants.
Antalis says students’ record keeping of plant growth in butterfly habitats, for example—and their witnessing firsthand the life cycle from caterpillar to butterfly right outside their classroom windows—is a transformative experience for many of them.
“It’s extremely inquiry-based,” says Antalis, “and every kid dives right in. When you’re outside in one of these areas, it’s hard not to start investigating.”
At the summit held this past August, National Wildlife Federation education VP Kevin Coyle discussed studies showing that students who interact more with nature perform better in school, with better standardized test scores, higher attendance and fewer discipline problems.
The district will focus on strategic planning methods to sustain the construction of new habitats in the coming years. Antalis says educators will also reach out to parent groups, as family activities such as taking walks or planting gardens happen less and less these days.
Keep Off the Grass?
Concerns over lead exposure from synthetic turf fields arose during the summer when the New Jersey Department of Health and Senior Services discovered lead in artificial turf while assisting the federal Environmental Protection Agency in an investigation of a metals scrap yard in Newark. But a recent evaluation by the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission says educators and parents need not worry.
Commission staff tested artificial turf athletic fields throughout the country and found that newer fields contained no lead or had the lowest levels, and that while the surfaces of some older fields contained small amounts of lead, none of the older tested fields released amounts that would be harmful to children. Before the tests, educators and community members were concerned that athletes could ingest fibers or dust from the nylon material, which contains lead compounds to make the grass green.
Still, the CPSC is asking that voluntary standards be developed for synthetic turf, and it recommends proper maintenance, including wetting down fields and having students wash their hands after playing.