Butler County school trend: Outdoors can be the best classroom

Credit: DaytonDailyNews

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More learning in Butler County Schools is taking place outside.

Credit: DaytonDailyNews

This spring’s school lessons include the following non-traditional instructional tools: Rotting pumpkins, sidewalks, garden beds, chain saws and Mother Nature.

Say hello to some of the new school learning going on outdoors in Butler County.

These are just a few of the wildly different learning instruments increasingly being used outdoors by local K-12 schools, and education experts and veteran teachers say they are helping students learn in ways that can’t be duplicated in classrooms.

It’s not a new trend but its frequency and variety are accelerating in recent years, they say.

And spring time is one of the prime times for such learning.

In Butler County’s largest school district, Lakota elementary teacher Amy Kleinfeldt — a veteran of 25 years in the classroom — says just that as she recently led her second-graders out to small garden plots to look for remnants of rotting pumpkins.

Students in Butler Tech’s landscape science program retain tension on a rope as they remove dead ash trees in Monroe’s Rosemont Nature Preserve. NICK GRAHAM/STAFF
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Students in Butler Tech’s landscape science program retain tension on a rope as they remove dead ash trees in Monroe’s Rosemont Nature Preserve. NICK GRAHAM/STAFF

“The kids are getting to see that learning is everywhere,” says Kleinfeldt as the Heritage Elementary youngsters clamor around the garden beds with notebooks and pencils in hand, noting changes from their last visit.

“We are using our science standards to do the observations and watching change over time,” she says.

MORE: Lakota elementary studies, protects local creek

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‘Learning by doing’

And the exclusivity of classroom-only learning hasalso changed over time for good reasons, says Mark Meyers, a history of education expert at Xavier University.

“It’s a good trend because it’s another way of learning … where students are actually learning by doing, rather than reading in a textbook about it being done,” says Meyers, who is educational administration program director for Xavier’s College of Professional Sciences.

The growing popularity of experiential learning — or learning by doing — is difficult to quantify but undeniable, say educators.

There are no recent national studies in large part because the incorporation of outdoor learning into a districtwide — or individual school curricula — is largely a local decision, sometimes made on the school building level by each teacher.

But a 2010 national survey of 1,878 teachers by the National Wildlife Foundation did find that 75 percent of those queried agreed with the statement: “Students who spend regular time outdoors tend to be more creative and better able to problem solve in the classroom.”

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Real world provides real learning

At another Lakota school — VanGorden Elementary — veteran teacher Shelly Jerome tells her 6th-grade students to grab yards sticks and notepads because the youngsters are going outside to measure portions of the campus sidewalks.

The outdoor excursion helps students develop a tactile relationship to learning through real-world measuring, says Jerome.

“We’re doing indirect measurements and also the composite area of figures by using the real figures (different shaped sidewalks) that are outside the building (school). Hands on experience is much better than sitting with a textbook or computer,” she says. “The kids will remember better and it gets them active in their learning.”

“You are seeing this (learning) more and more,” she says, adding that the budget cuts that have seen gym, music and art classes shortened in recent years makes outdoor learning all the more crucial.

University of Cincinnati Education Professor Victoria Carr, who is also co-editor of Children, Youth & Environments, says “child development theories emphasize that children and youth learn by doing.”

She is encouraged by the growing numbers of ways teachers are teaching outside the classroom.

“Experiences beyond the classroom walls … (provide students) … opportunities to make decisions that influence their world. This, in turn, can build self-confidence and support intrinsic motivation versus being subjected to the many extrinsic controls (rewards systems) inherent in far too many classrooms,” says Carr.

It can be a learning activity as simple as reading time outside on the grass.

Dozens of Shawnee Early Childhood School students this week took advantage of the pleasant weather to do just that under the directions of their teachers.

“Students can learn in all types of environments,” says Shawnee Principal Theresa Brock, who added the change in scenery pays off even when children return inside.

“This is very important especially for this age group. Being in the different environment revives the children and they are more engaged and active in their own learning. We see the focus to task continue once they are back in the building. Students are able to give their attention and focus on the next learning activity,” says Brock.

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Trading classrooms for chainsaws

Butler Tech career school has been a pioneer in outdoor learning on a large scale for some of its outdoor-oriented high school learning programs but none are more directly interactive than its Landscape Science classes.

Especially this week when students in teacher Mark Anderson’s class grabbed chainsaws and cut their way through thick brush to saw down giant, dead trees in Monroe’s Rosemont Nature Preserve.

The students are clearing the potentially dangerous trees from newly expanded walking paths. The work is hard, hazardous and impossible to duplicate in any instructional form inside a classroom.

“They have been through all the skilled chain saw training and this is a real, hands-on situation,” says Anderson above the loud buzz of high speed cutting.

MORE: High school students renovate ball fields

Classroom instruction focuses on the science of landscaping and forestry — identifying trees and their many species, symptoms of tree diseases and the logging industry — but the most important school room right now is the forest that surrounds these teens.

Geraldine Crawford, a Butler Tech junior from Middletown, says the learning through doing is the best sort of education for her, especially compared to learning inside a classroom.

“The classroom is great … but I don’t like sitting there writing on a piece of paper about something,” she says.

Anderson, who says his class is 60 percent outdoor instruction and 40 percent classroom learning, understands the sentiment.

“There is a lot learning that goes on out here because I can’t teach them how to run a Bobcat (earth moving machine) or a chainsaw inside a classroom.”

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