No walls. No desks. No pencils and paper. The kids in Michelle Cain's Grade 1 class are learning math in the sandbox.
Ms. Cain fills a styrofoam cup with sand, and the group of five- and six-year-olds – at times easily distracted by the natural impulse to build sandcastles – add more cups of sand to make 10. They are learning basic addition, but their afternoon spent in this outdoor classroom at Hillcrest Public School in Barrie, Ont., is giving them a leg up in more ways than one. "There's so much stuff we can use in this classroom to help us learn," Ms. Cain tells her class.
Starting this fall, the Simcoe County District School Board, north of Toronto, is using music stations, giant xylophones, sandboxes, road lanes painted on concrete, stages, wooden benches and pumpkin patches in its schoolyards as part of an ambitious experiment in learning. The board will build outdoor classrooms in all 85 of its elementary schools, and experts say it is believed to be the only district in the country embarking on such large-scale ambitions.
The research is clear: Getting outside motivates children to learn, keeps them attentive, builds their imaginations and improves classroom behaviour, all of which can improve test scores. This is on top of the obvious physical benefits. The research is difficult to translate into practice, though: Teachers are weighted down by curriculum demands, are not trained on how to teach kids in a more fluid environment and, institutionally, educating our kids has become a structured, indoor task. Overcoming those barriers – as Britain, Germany, Finland and Sweden have done – can stoke kids' natural curiosity and make school a more enticing place than when it's just a bricks-and-mortar building.
"You can only do so much inside the classroom. The stimulation of a multisensory environment that is changing and evolving is hard to beat," said Cam Collyer, program director at Evergreen, a not-for-profit organization that encourages people to think about nature in their everyday lives. "I'm no brain researcher, but I get when the body moves, it's good for the mind."
This week, Evergreen is hosting a conference in Toronto that brings together international experts to speak about building the outdoors into the curriculum. Among the speakers is Susan Humphries, the founder of Coombes Primary school in Britain, west of London.
Ms. Humphries transformed the once-barren schoolyard into an outdoor classroom because she believed that sitting behind desks all day is not the best way for children to learn. "We have never differentiated between outdoor learning and indoor learning," she said. "Holistic education is at its best when there is a balance of experience between the classroom and the natural environment."
Canadian researchers studying the benefits of outdoor education have a few examples they're closely watching. In British Columbia, Sooke School District's kindergarten students at Sangster Elementary are learning what to do when they see a cougar and how to stay safe in the wilderness. The nature kindergarten class, now in its second year of a pilot project, spends half its day in the Royal Roads University forest behind the school. Nearby, the Victoria School District is looking for approval from trustees next month to build two outdoor kindergarten classrooms. And at the Toronto District School Board, Canada's largest, the Equinox Holistic Alternative School, founded in 2009, has been taking kids outdoors to study various subjects.
The Simcoe board in Ontario is building outdoor classrooms with funding – about $8,000 per school – provided by the Ministry of Education to support the implementation of full-day kindergarten. School boards were given flexibility on how to use the funds and Simcoe decided to use the money in a way that all students, not just those in the kindergarten program, could benefit from play-based learning.
Heather Ma, the board's early years consultant, said officials realized that many students learn best outside the classroom. "The outdoors is not just about phys-ed and dramatic play. We can incorporate different subjects into our learning," she said. "We're feeding into their natural need to move and to get rid of some energy. Because of that, when they go into class, hopefully they'll be ready to embrace new learning."
Just a couple of weeks into the academic year, Ms. Cain is already seeing the benefits of being outdoors. The Grade 1 class, which was restless while learning to add in the classroom, is much more interested in math with sand. Ms. Cain said the winter weather is not going to stop them from coming outdoors to build snow structures and learn about the snow.
Mr. Collyer would like to see other boards adopt such wide-ranging initiatives. "We've been funding it with bake sales," he said. "It's not really part of the institutional plan. It's part of a grassroots movement."