Outdoor classrooms rising in popularity as N.L. kids return to school amid COVID-19

Some schools in Newfoundland and Labrador are getting creative when it comes to teaching in the time of COVID-19, and that includes rethinking where learning takes place.

District encouraging efforts to learn outside as much as possible

Grade 3 students work in the outdoor classroom at St. Bonaventure's Collegiate in St. John's. (Cec Haire/CBC)

Some schools in Newfoundland and Labrador are getting creative when it comes to teaching in the time of COVID-19, including rethinking where learning takes place, with outdoor classrooms rising in popularity. 

At St. Francis of Assisi School in Outer Cove, volunteers cleared a wooded area a few feet from the school building to make room for an outdoor classroom, with tree stumps for desks and white boards attached to nearby trees.

Students at St. Bonaventure's College in St. John's are also able to get some learning done in the sunshine with a new outdoor classroom, complete with birch tree stumps and two massive white boards.

David Martino, head of teaching and learning at the school, said while they've been doing outdoor teaching for years, the pandemic has taken it to a new level.

"COVID in some ways was a push for us, but it wasn't the only reason," he said.

"We were already moving in that direction. This isn't the end point; this is one more step in our outdoor learning programming."

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A chalkboard and white board are set up in the outdoor classroom at St. Francis of Assisi School in Outer Cove. (Cec Haire/CBC)

School district encouraging outdoors

Along with the new outdoor classroom at St. Bon's, there are three new seating areas with benches on the school grounds, as well as clusters of tree stumps to accommodate small groups.

In this potentially unpredictable environment, Martino said, unplanned interactions and interruptions are not a concern.

"The pigeon isn't a distraction. The pigeon is an invitation to the curiosity and the imagination of that young student," said Martino, adding it's an opportunity for responsive learning.

"Students love that. They love when their curiosity is affirmed and recognized by teachers."

Health experts say the risk of transmitting the virus is lower outdoors, and while the Newfoundland and Labrador English School District has not made outdoor classrooms mandatory, they are strongly encouraged, according to district CEO Tony Stack.

"We know learning — real authentic learning, deep learning — can occur in the environment and, if possible, we encourage it," Stack said.

"As long as we have beautiful days like this we should be able to have the children out as much as possible."

There are a number of schools now looking at developing sections of their land to turn them into outdoor classrooms.

However, Stack acknowledges the options for outdoor learning will vary depending on location and resources.

"It will be different from school to school, obviously," Stack said, "but we're really pushing the notion of going outside as much as possible."

Outside learning in Labrador

The notion of outdoor classrooms is getting a warm reception with some students at Lake Melville School in North West River, where the principal recently posted on social media that they would look into how to accommodate a similar setting. 

Krystal Cooper said her daughter, Addison Buchanno, who started Grade 6 at the school Thursday, is excited about it.

"I personally think it's a fantastic idea," said Cooper. "They talk about classrooms outside. Doing stuff outside, learning about nature."

Kystal Cooper says her her daughter, Addison Buchanno, would love to have an outdoor classroom in North West River. (Submitted by Kystal Cooper)

Henry Gordon Academy in Cartwright also put out a call on social media to check the pulse of parents.

Sonya Dyson, who has two children at the school, is open to the idea because, she said, kids have mostly been outside since they were sent home in March when the pandemic shuttered everything.

"It's going to be a big adjustment for them to be back in the classroom again, especially with the restrictions that are in place." she said.

"If the weather co-operates and we don't get the falls storms and the fall winds, I think it can be pulled off very easily."

Read more from CBC Newfoundland and Labrador


Cec Haire


Cec Haire reports for CBC News from St. John's.

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