Outdoor Learning Webinar Series Recap: Session 1 Physical and Mental Benefits of Outdoor Learning

On April 6, 2022, a group of leading outdoor education organizations (including Big Green, EcoRise, Green Schoolyards America, Out Teach, and FreshFarm FoodPrints) kicked off a webinar series for education professionals, with appearances by the Department of Education, who support the use of outdoor learning as an important educational tool. The 4-part webinar series highlights the well-documented benefits of outdoor education and supports school districts and state boards of education to invest in the infrastructure, training, maintenance, and staffing to bring the multitude of benefits of this powerful resource to the students they serve. 

Utilizing ESSER funds provided by the American Rescue Plan Act school districts can support the immediate needs of safety and recovery related to COVID-19 while at the same time holistically supporting students for the long term. This first session led by Laura Thompson and Sam Koentopp at Big Green focuses on the health and wellness benefits of outdoor education.

There have been many studies completed and books written showcasing how time spent outdoors, interacting with the natural world is beneficial, especially for young people. When we spend time in nature, we intrinsically can feel that our mental, physical, social, and even spiritual well-being is improved. In this session, we featured six experienced leaders supporting outdoor education in different ways.

Professor Claire Latané, author of the book Schools That Heal: Design with Mental Health in Mind took a look at how schoolyard design principles directly support student well-being by providing examples from her research. She makes a case for rich well designed outdoor spaces both as a benefit for students and a resource to support educators in this time when unrelenting pressure on teachers compounds the challenges we’re confronting in education.

Nancy Zook and Andrew Hockenberry lead the sustainability, art, urban agriculture and community engagement programming at CCA Academy in the West Lawndale neighborhood of Chicago. They shared an overview of their work with high school students culminating in the newly built PermaPark and have utilized ESSER funding as a part of a diverse funding strategy to support the work. Students and the community surrounding CCA benefit in a multitude of ways from the investments they continue to make in outdoor education.

Victoria Rydberg an Environmental Education Consultant with the Wisconsin Department of Education is working to create a toolkit to support the use of ESSER funds and is connected to a number of schools in the state who have witnessed the impact of outdoor education on their students. She welcomed Principal, Vicky Haas and Field Coach, Ashley Hegewald of the Wittenberg-Birnamwood School in Northern Wisconsin to share the outdoor education initiatives they are leading. Together they painted a picture of how state institutions, non-profit organizations, and local school districts are able to work together with the support of federal resources to use outdoor education in rural Wisconsin districts.

Recording & Presentation: Session 1

Additional Resources

CCA Academy and PermaPark

Resources referenced in the presentation and the chat:

Green Schoolyards America shared helpful links in the chat linked to themes discussed in the presentations:

Frequently Asked Questions

How are chickens cared for during weekends? 

  • Nancy & Andrew: When the chicks are young and kept inside they have enough food and water to last through the weekend along with a light on a timer and a “chicken cam” that feeds to a laptop so we can see them remotely if anything happens. When they are outside Andrew will install an automatic door on their coop and they will learn to go in their coop at sunset and come out with the sunrise and the door opening. They have a special food and water system that assures they will not run out either. The coop is located inside a fenced outdoor area.

How do you manage the liability issues around having beehives on campus?  I’m thinking specifically about students with allergies.

  • Nancy & Andrew: It is optional for students to interact directly with the hive. They can always work on honey extraction and bottling or watch hive checks from a safe distance. We have protective clothing – bee suits and gloves – for those who want to participate in hive checks and honey harvesting. The school keeps an epi-pen – as all schools are required to have this – if there is a situation where someone is stung and has a reaction. No one visits the hive alone and the hive itself is in a remote corner of a fenced green area (bioswale) that is attached to our school’s parking lot. We also have an educational sign to let everyone know the hives are there.

How does the integration of Environmental Education with teacher preparation look in Wisconsin and is there a specific place you could point me toward for more information?