Green Schools Conference: Boston Schoolyard Inspires

March 18, 2015

At BCWH, we aim to create environments that are timeless in design and thoughtful in approach. We are constantly working to use buildings and landscapes as teaching tools. By showcasing sustainable elements, each structure can help to educate about the impact that the built environment has on resource and energy usage. As the only national conference bringing together experts and stakeholders to influence sustainability throughout K-12 schools and school districts, the annual Green Schools National Conference offers an opportunity to learn about creative strategies for implementing green and sustainable schools and to take home real-life tools that can transform schools.

During this year’s conference, Erin Richardson and Allison Powell found one session particularly interesting and relevant to their dedication to creating sustainable learning environments. Phoebe Beierle, Sustainability Manager, Boston Public Schools, and Kristin Metz, Education Consultant, presented on the building and sustainment of outdoor learning spaces through the Boston Schoolyard Initiative (BSI).

BSI was established in 1996 as a public-private partnership, “to transform the city’s schoolyards into dynamic centers for recreation, learning and community life.” Eighteen years later, through a combined investment of $20 million and the commitment of the city, school department, funders, teachers and families, BSI has created safe, welcoming play spaces for 88 schoolyards and installed over 30 outdoor classrooms.

Advocates of outdoor learning often state many benefits to teaching and learning outside the typical classroom. In order to demonstrate and quantify these many benefits, BSI recently conducted a survey through the University of Chicago to evaluate the effectiveness of BSI’s Science in the Schoolyard program. Results from the survey confirmed an increased level of interest in science, improved skills in communicating about science, and an increase in independent learning and connections between lessons. Key findings from the survey as well as tips and resources for schools and teachers can be found here: http://outlier.uchicago.edu/BSI-SSY/.

The success of the program was attributed not only to the installation of the outdoor classrooms, but also to the professional development provided to teachers. Lesson plans(http://www.schoolyards.org/teaching.resources.html) were developed which tie outdoor learning directly into the schools’ FOSS Curriculum and teachers were trained how to use the outdoor classrooms to support these lessons.

Erin and Allison have experienced the benefits and challenges of implementing an outdoor learning program first hand through their work with the Greater Virginia Green Building Council’s Connect the Dots program. For the past two years, Erin has worked with her former high school, St. Catherine’s School, on their green school initiatives and developing a school garden. Allison has dedicated time to helping an art teacher at Gordon Elementary build a living plant wall with her students as well as mentoring students at Varina High School on developing an edible classroom to support the curriculum of sustainable living. Although the development of outdoor learning can be challenging, the benefits to students are clear. The research results Erin and Allison took away from this presentation have given them insight they’ve already been able to incorporate into several of their current school projects.