While it’s a proven fact that outdoor learning spaces bring any number of benefits to children, many K-12 teachers face even more questions about where to begin building an outdoor classroom. Cary Jamieson, program specialist with the School of Professional and Continuing Studies’ (SPCS) Landscape Design Program, knew the University of Richmond could offer the answers.

That’s why she helped lead the way in launching the Sustainability and Nature Institute for Educators — one of the first programs of its kind — to equip teachers with the tools they need to build an outdoor learning experience from the ground up.

“Students are spending a tremendous amount of time in front of a screen,” says Jamieson. “They don’t have the same freedom to explore nature as generations that came before them. It’s become the responsibility of the teachers to expose them to outdoor settings in the safety of the school.”

Teachers from schools in both rural and urban Virginia, and even as far away as Florida, gathered for one week in July to learn the art and science behind outdoor classrooms from John Hayden, professor of biology, and Steven Koprowski, instructor of landscape design.

Guest speakers, such as Jerry McCarthy, executive director of the Virginia Environmental Endowment; Carol Heiser, education coordinator from the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries; and Megan Litke, University sustainability coordinator, provided additional instruction on everything from grant funding sources to insect collection to community participation to sustainability initiatives. Field trips to Lewis Ginter Botanical Gardens and local schools rounded out the program with a firsthand look at gardens and outdoor programs.

At first blush, outdoor classrooms seem to apply only to biology and other natural science topics. However, participants learned how the concept can apply to a variety of subjects: teaching Shakespeare is enhanced by writing nature-inspired poetry, creating a gourd orchestra brings life to music classes, and measuring trees and sidewalks shows the application of math principles. As Jamieson explains, the idea is “really just about engaging with the natural environment.”

“[Outdoor classrooms] don’t have to just be math and science,” says Melinda Adamonis, a language arts and social sciences teacher at Three Chopt Elementary School. “It can encompass all learning in a school, and all grades.”

The institute also addressed the disparities that teachers in rural versus urban schools face. “People in urban settings don’t realize all of the resources they do have on their school grounds,” Jamieson says. “Sometimes there’s just a natural element, like a group of trees, leaves and mulch. [Meanwhile,] we had a teacher who lives in a rural community and [her students] all have vegetable gardens at home. She was concentrating on how to use natural elements outdoors to foster more understanding.”

Despite the breadth and depth of instruction during the weeklong session, Jamieson says the biggest message was to keep it simple. “You don’t have to have a huge vegetable or flower garden that takes a tremendous amount of time and energy and money,” Jamieson says. “It can be just walking around school grounds and observing nature. We’re trying to make [the idea] as accessible to others as possible, and rethink the way that teachers utilize an outdoor space.”

Admonis agrees with the simple approach. “Everybody should understand how not being outside is negatively impacting our children, and what we can do to help. [They shouldn’t] look at an outside learning classroom as something that’s unattainable.”

Photo: Steven Koprowski, instructor of landscape design with SPCS, and Melinda Adamonis, a language arts and social sciences teacher at Three Chopt Elementary School.