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Discovery Hill: An Outdoor Learning Laboratory
The importance of children having outdoor learning spaces at schools is well established. Outdoor classrooms are effective for applied science education, inquiry-based learning, physical and emotional health, and brain function. They are also effective at keeping America’s increasingly ‘indoor kids’ in tune with nature as they grow up.
The National Wildlife Federation contributes to increasing outdoor learning through its Eco Schools USA and Schoolyard Habitats® programs at 8,000 K-12 schools across the country. Partner organizations at the national, state and local levels are likewise helping educators and administrators provide outdoor learning spaces on site. The cumulative efforts of these many advocates have evolved into a school garden and outdoor classroom movement that is reaching a significant percentage of America’s 130,000 K-12 schools. But can we sustain it?
One of the toughest challenges in fostering this movement is to find educators who are truly comfortable teaching in outdoor spaces. It does not come all that easily to many educators despite the availability of written guides and lesson plans. In many cases, it involves cultivation and gardening skills, understanding of native plant and animal life, food systems and the ability to work with children who are not confined to their seats and desks. Outdoor teaching can be intimidating for many and therefore not done.
NWF’s South Central Regional Center has taken the challenge on directly by creating a demonstration garden that is woven into the teacher professional development program of the Austin Independent School District in Texas. This NWF Certified Schoolyard Habitats®, called Discovery Hill, is used by experienced teachers to show novices how to create outdoor classrooms and/or use them in teaching at their own school. Discovery Hill also serves as a place teachers can bring their students for extended field investigations.
Schools have opportunities throughout the summer and school year to participate in NWF sponsored professional development sessions where teachers are provided with a guide to Creating a Schoolyard Habitats®. Teachers spend time in the Certified Schoolyard Habitats®, actively engaged in lessons that will help them at their own schools to attract and support local wildlife.