Academic journal article Science and Children

Ensuring a Safer Outdoor Experience

Academic journal article Science and Children

Ensuring a Safer Outdoor Experience

Article excerpt

An exciting way to intro-duce students to ecosystem ideas is to involve them in field experiences outside of the classroom. Many elementary school yards provide a variety of terrains that can be developed as outdoor learning centers for ecosystem investigations. The sites allow for development of fields, forested areas, gardens, nature trails, ponds and other natural outdoor learning settings. These potential outdoor learning centers are great resources to be explored and help to foster learning and under-standing of ecosystem concepts and ideas via hands-on, process-, and inquirybased learning activities. They are also exciting places for students to have real-world learning outside of the academically structured physical classroom and textbook. Schools without such resources available on-site can either develop outdoor learning centers in a smaller confined area in the school yard or look to nearby location sites off school grounds.

Looking at potential sites for out-door learning centers, however, can initially be frustrating. Elementary teachers and parent volunteer groups are often greeted at their first visit to a woodland site with a poison ivy infestation or an open field site with a serious litter problem. So, how do you determine if the location under consideration has the potential for use and can successfully and safely meet the needs of an outdoor learning center for elementary students?

Safety at the Center

There are many things to consider when initially planning for an outdoor learning center: curriculum needs, legal issues, terrain considerations, and health and safety needs. The following planning information will get you started and help you create a safer outdoor learning center.

Policies and Procedures: First, check board of education policies or school procedures relative to requirements or conditions for allowing students to have on-site or off-site field experiences and conditions for development of outdoor learning laboratories. Field experiences may have limitations and required safety protocols that must be followed, such as use of cell phones or walkie-talkies, appropriate clothing, medical concerns, and so on. Off-site locations involving private property or public parks site use may also involve other legal issues and therefore the board of education lawyer should be engaged.

Development of school property or off-site locations (e.g. public parks, private property, etc.) for an outdoor learning center may also have legal or other restrictions that should be investigated with school administrators and board of education, and town officials (e.g., building department, fire marshal, tree warden, and so on). As noted in the NSTA publication Exploring Safely: A Guide for Elementary Teachers, "You should also make sure that the site does not carry restrictions for use and access (conservation land, wildlife preserve, private property, hazardous materials contamination)" (Kwan and Texley 2002, p. 78).

Curriculum Aspects: What is the purpose of the outdoor learning center? Will it support the science curriculum? Remember that it also may be used for learning activities in other disciplines like art, math, or physical education. Will there be public access and use of the site allowed? Given the character of the site and accompanying health and safety issues, will it be able to embrace curriculum activities as an outside learning center? Several great resources for outdoor site ideas can be found in the following books: Outdoor Science: A Practical Guide (NSTA Press 2010), Does Money Grow on School Yard Trees? Resources for Your Outdoor Classroom (NSTA Press 2010) and Greening School Grounds: Creating Habitats for Learning (Grant and Littlejohn 2001). Curriculum-wise, the Next Generation Science Standards should be addressed during planning.

Long-term Maintenance: Take into consideration long-term maintenance costs and need for trained personnel or volunteers (including safety awareness) for upkeep of the center, as well as any potential future health and safety issues or repair costs for things like signage, safety barriers, and outdoor furniture (e. …

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