Get outside and learn: Hopkins offers outdoor immersion program

Hopkins students are experiencing learning beyond the typical classroom. Pictured here are students in an outdoor art class. 

Abby Larson and Lisa Hake are second-grade teachers at Eisenhower Elementary School. Amid the COVID-19 pandemic, they are co-teaching through an outdoor immersion program at Maetzold Field in Hopkins.

Hake has experience in outdoor teaching and when she came to Eisenhower four years ago, an outdoor model was discussed. As the years went on, teachers wondered how it would work. In the summer, Sara Schmidt, the assistant principal approached Hake about bringing learning beyond the classroom.

From the moment the students step foot in the park until the moment they go home, they are learning, Hake said. Even if it’s not a specific reading or math skill, students are learning how to communicate, take turns and cooperate, she said.

When challenges arise, Hake and Larson and the students work to solve the problem. They come up with solutions together to prevent littering on windy days when they are trying to eat their lunch but things are blowing around, Hake said.

A big question is what will the class do in the winter. They hope to keep the outdoor model going as long as possible. No matter what, they plan to have outdoor experiences every day, but if it is extremely cold or windy they will shorten the experiences. When they have to go inside, the lessons will be tied in with what they learned outside, Hake said. If there is bad weather the class can use space in the Hopkins Activity Center.

The outdoor model encourages natural curiosity in children, Larson said, adding they arrive curious about the world every day, which leads to deeper learning. The class focuses on noticing activities such as walks through the park to explore the signs of fall through their senses and laying on the ground to watch and discuss the clouds.

Being in the park brings new excitement to typical learning standards. The church bells ring every hour, which students really tune into, Hake said. The class started counting the rings of the bells to figure out what time it is. The teachers have never had a class so excited about telling time, she said.

Science topics the class discusses include learning about insects and natural phenomena they observe in the park. Hake and Larson mix math and reading concepts with these subjects. The class spends most of the time together, but occasionally the students break into smaller groups based on targeted skills or interests.

Children learn better with movement, which is easier to facilitate in an outdoor space. When students sit still they may zone out or not pick up the information as well, Hake said. Some students live in small apartments with limited access to green space, she said, adding they want to provide students the ability to experience the outdoors.

Some students that struggled inside the classroom are flourishing in the outdoor model, Hake said.

In the future, Hake and Larson plan to make more connections with the community to help students understand what it is to be a community member, how to share space with people and how to affect the community, Hake said.

One of the greatest things to see is joyful engaged learners, Larson said. With the dual pandemics of COVID-19 and racism, it’s been a challenging time for children and adults, she added.

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