When the topic of outdoor classrooms was mentioned during meetings of the Falmouth Public Schools reopening advisory committee, Amy E. Leonardi “immediately took hold of the idea,” school Superintendent Lori S. Duerr said, and the Falmouth Outdoor Learning Committee was born.
“We wondered what the timeline for COVID-interrupted schooling would be,” Ms. Leonardi said of the parent/staff advisory committee. “No one has an answer. But we do have an answer for how to get students outside at school.”
Ms. Leonardi, who has a child in 4th grade and a preschooler, used to teach 3rd grade in the South, where there are more opportunities for students to be outside, she said.
“We were allowed to be more creative with our teaching and could go outside for any class. We would do reading groups outside in the grassy area next to the classroom, multiplication through a basketball circle, and measurement and science through plants and gardening. I have seen the benefits to schoolchildren of spending times outdoors, especially those with attention problems,” she said.
Ms. Leonardi, who is a member of the Rotary Club, approached Dr. Duerr to ask about a partnership between the club and the school system, then the two of them met with Director of Finance and Operations R. Patrick Murphy to identify outdoor space that could be used by students at all seven Falmouth schools.
“Most schools have enough space for reading lessons under a tree or classes held in the school garden,” Ms. Leonardi said.
Studies show a very small part of human communication is verbal, she said. Most communication occurs through eye contact, body language and facial expressions. Current guidelines for desks spaced apart, same-direction seating and mask-wearing make communication more difficult for students.
“Being outdoors means more mask breaks. If we are able to combine mask-break time with learning time, this brings back some normal interactions for students,” Ms. Leonardi said. “We also know that our families and students have been hit hard in the area of mental health. Studies have shown that students who learn outdoors develop a greater sense of self, independence, confidence, creativity, decision-making and problem-solving skills, empathy towards others, motor skills, self-discipline and initiative.”
Perhaps more importantly during this pandemic, health experts say one of the best ways to prevent the spread of COVID-19 is to interact with others outside as much as possible. Creating outdoor learning spaces at school will help achieve this for students and school staff.
Ms. Leonardi reached out to the community for help, and the community responded. The Outdoor Learning Committee now has “approximately 50 volunteers, including parents, retirees, teachers, and even some kids, who are regular helpers and organizers,” she said.
The committee collects donations of supplies, based on each school’s needs and the principals’ wish lists, and facilitates setup for outdoor learning spaces.
Additionally, Ms. Leonardi formed a leadership team of eight volunteers, assigning a point person to each school to meet with teachers, parents and principals to discern what is needed at each school to create opportunities for outdoor learning. The team has just reached nine members with the addition of a new volunteer.
Team members are Ms. Leonardi, point person for North Falmouth Elementary School and Falmouth High School; Amy Wyman, point person for East Falmouth Elementary School; Corinne Minshall, point person for Teaticket Elementary School; Danielle Sabens, point person for Mullen-Hall School; Jackie Jepsen, point person for Morse Pond School; Leslie Paolucci, point person for Lawrence School; Elizabeth Lerner, media contact; Laurel Smith, tent/yoga mat coordinator; and Amy Nevala, in charge of thank-yous.
With donations, grant money and an abundance of enthusiasm, the Falmouth Outdoor Learning committee is already making a difference as the Falmouth schools begin the academic year.
The Rotary Club provided a grant of $3,450 for supplies such as fitness station sets, reusable stencils, orange cones, carpet dots, field-marking spray and paint.
Repurposed items—such as tree stumps for seating and wooden electrical wiring spools used as tables to hold teachers’ supplies—will also be used.
Depending on each school’s needs, the point people on the leadership team organize volunteer work days for projects such as cleaning garden areas and spreading wood chips, moving tree log seating, sanding and treating picnic tables and wooden spools, and helping set up new outdoor “sails.”
Cape Cod Aggregates donated scoop seats to add flexible outdoor seating options. Yoga mats have been donated. A Brownie troop is making plastic sit-upons for use on log seats or on the grass.
The Rotary Club has volunteered to measure and line playing fields at North Falmouth Elementary with “boxes” 10 feet apart from one another where classes can be held outside at a safe distance from each another. The club is coordinating with the school on a date to accomplish that.
“We put out a request for clipboards, which students can carry outside to do their work on,” Ms. Leonardi said. “Within two hours, enough clipboards were donated for every student at North Falmouth Elementary School. Today, we received two boxes of clipboards donated anonymously at the East Falmouth Elementary School.”
Cape Cod moms and real estate agent Pamela Heylin donated drawstring backpacks to hold writing supplies and clipboards. Students can keep the backpacks on the backs of their chairs and grab them when it is time to go outside.
Two of the six picnic tables requested for Falmouth High School have been purchased and delivered as donations.
“The Lawrence School requested three movable white boards. When the request was posted on Facebook, three white boards were donated by local people immediately,” Ms. Leonardi said, noting that the list goes on. “The community has been so great. I’m a firm believer that if you give, others will want to give too, especially when it’s about youth.”
Superintendent Duerr said, “The committee has been extremely helpful and very good to the schools. When we need something, they are there; they have gone way beyond my expectations. This is so reflective of the Falmouth community as a whole; everyone is so giving here.”
One of the committee’s immediate goals is to replace the outdoor tents set up at each Falmouth school. The tents were obtained through a grant for temporary use only until November.
The Falmouth Outdoor Learning Committee is looking to purchase permanent tents, “sails,” or even 20-by-20-foot yurts, which can be opened up like tents, to replace the temporary ones.
“We are looking to find more permanent outdoor tent solutions, which would become part of the school district’s property and could be used by the schools even after the COVID-19 pandemic is over,” Ms. Leonardi said.
Guidance from the Falmouth Fire Rescue Department, she said, indicates that heaters can be used in tents in colder weather, as long as the tent is a certain height.
“We are focusing on this as a long-term project and praying for a mellow winter,” Ms. Leonardi said, adding that no matter what winter brings, come spring the committee hopes to have permanent tents or sails set up. “[The committee’s work has been wonderful and inspiring. It takes a lot of coordination, but it is a proactive thing to do to make lives easier for teachers and students, and it gives the community a common goal to work on. I hope we may see an increase in [student] productivity and mental health. The teachers are excited, too. Outdoor learning could make a big difference and maybe even change the way public education is done.”
“I am overwhelmed with gratitude, especially for Amy,” Dr. Duerr said. “This is a huge undertaking and a lot of coordination of volunteers. I so appreciate all that the committee is doing for the kids. It’s very joyous.”