Portland School Tries Out ‘Outdoor’ Education

Students in Portland, Oregon, use a muddy field as their school, spending their entire day outside in one of Oregon’s public parks.

“Rain or shine, we’re out here,” said teacher Christine Fleener. “Sometimes we build a shelter.” 

Fleener’s class of fifth graders head to a meadow for a biology lesson, where further down the trail, a group of fourth-graders is learning on logs, and on the banks of a small stream, the older kids are building a bridge to get from one side of their “classroom” to the other.

It’s school, just not the type of school people are used to seeing. 

Immersive outdoor forest schools are especially popular in Europe, but they’ve gained traction in the United States over the past decade. Most are geared toward younger students. 

The idea is that the challenges that come with being outside all day – dealing with weather, building your shelter, unearthing the unexpected – are all part of the learning process.

The district isn’t all outside all the time, but certain classes, like art, have moved outdoors to help kids space apart, where supplies came from federal pandemic relief funds and local donations. 

For Maine teacher Katie West, the outdoor education experiment has been a learning experience.

“I would say that being outdoors, my experience is students are naturally alive and awake and curious,” West said. “So, I think COVID has really opened that remembrance that we need to be thinking about the Earth in our academics, too.”

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