Beverly Sanchez, a teacher at Kingsley Elementary School in the East Hollywood neighborhood of Los Angeles, sits in a wicker chair in an outdoor kindergarten classroom. Handmade wooden planters form its boundary. (Deepa Fernandes/KQED)
The East Hollywood neighborhood surrounding Kingsley Elementary School in Los Angeles was hit hard by COVID-19. So when Karina Salazar, the school’s principal, began planning for her campus to reopen for in-person learning this month, she knew families would be nervous about sending their children back.
She thought if she could offer students the chance to be outdoors for part of the day, it might alleviate some concern for both parents and teachers.
Salazar is not new to outdoor education. Prior to the pandemic, the school created a native plant and organic vegetable garden, complete with a chicken coop. Students did science units there, and relished the opportunity to care for the school's roosters, Roy and Al, Salazar said.
Yet Salazar wanted to go further, and with support from experts in outdoor learning, Kingsley Elementary — which reopens for in-person learning on Monday — is piloting a program that will do just that. With four brand new nature classrooms set up atop the asphalt playground space, teachers will be able to sign up to bring their students outside.
Kingsley’s new outdoor setup comes as the Los Angeles Unified School District pushes to expand outdoor learning options. The school board just approved a resolution that calls for more funding and resources to grow existing outdoor education programs like the two nature-based camps it operates.
Yet, few other schools in the district are so far following Kingsley's lead. Nick Melvoin, an LAUSD board member, hopes that will change with the new resolution.
“I really think it's a failure of imagination,” Melvoin said. “I think we've been dead set in our ways on what a classroom should look like, going back to when many of us were kids ... and it's a classroom with desks and with walls.”
In LAUSD schools, only about 40% of elementary school students are opting to return to in-person classes, according to a district spokesperson.
“I think that had we done a better job of setting up these outdoor classrooms, we actually could have opened schools earlier than we are now,” Melvoin said. “Even schools where we haven't been able to do the work of putting in gardens or grass, even if we're converting a blacktop by putting in a tent and adaptive seating, we could fit more students in, and that would mitigate the need for an AM and a PM session.”
Kingsley's outdoor classrooms have no walls. Instead, the boundaries are marked by planted shrubs. Traditional plastic bucket seats have been replaced with wicker armchairs and tree stumps.
Students will rotate between their regular inside classrooms and the outdoor spaces when the school reopens for in-person learning.
“By establishing the conditions where teachers can be outside with their students and have an outdoor classroom that provides that sense of openness, it adds that additional layer of security,” Salazar said.
The classrooms that Salazar and her staff built, with support from Green Schoolyards America, are little nature hubs. Two classrooms have natural toned desks and stools with a wicker armchair for the teacher, a setup more redolent of college than your typical elementary school. Another classroom uses a bed of mulch to form the floor.
All the outside classrooms have large wooden or aluminum planters with fragrant shrubs to demarcate the room’s boundaries. There are also bright colored woolen rugs atop the mulch or asphalt.
Donations flowed in to help build out Kingsley's classrooms. A local arboretum gave dozens of tree stumps that will be used as seats for small group work or reading circles under the shade. For the mulch-floor classroom, a local carpenter, Arnold Bautista, made by hand 12 vintage-style wooden desks with built-in seats. LAUSD delivered two big event tents to shade one classroom and the outdoor teacher lounge.
Claire Latané, a Cal Poly Pomona landscape design professor, was part of the school’s outdoor classroom design team. Outdoor classrooms have so many benefits, she believes, in addition to offering heightened safety against COVID-19.
She points to a recent master’s thesis on the topic, which found that when teachers being observed took their classes outside for just two 30-minute sessions a week for 12 weeks, many students who had been struggling bounced back.
Salazar knew her staff would need support to transition to teaching outdoors. “Our school team spent a whole weekend in professional development sessions by grade span so we could really customize the content,” Salazar said. An upcoming training will address behavior and classroom management in outdoor environments.
Buy-in from teachers was also crucial, Salazar said. After surveying her teachers early on, she found strong support for the idea of spending some part of the day teaching outside.
“It's not being forced on them, it's really an element of choice and teacher empowerment,” she said.
Now, as teachers return to campus and see the new classrooms set up in the playground, the excitement is palpable, Salazar said.
“I’m so excited about this,” said second grade teacher Anna Maschek as she walked through the classrooms for the first time.
Her colleague, Dennis Staine, said his students will love attending class outside.
“Especially with COVID and everything, allowing the kids to be outside, allowing them to see, to smell, to touch, to hear all these things that they haven't really been able to do,” he said.
Outside Learning in the OC
Another elementary school, in Orange County, is using its outdoor space to get as many students as possible back on campus for the full school day, four days a week. At the Journey School, a charter school in Aliso Viejo, kindergarten through second grade classes have already been back in person since November.
The school had full-time outdoor kindergarten classrooms long before the pandemic hit. In the Waldorf-inspired play-based program, outdoor learning spaces are strategically set up to facilitate different kinds of learning: the children garden, they build with random pieces of wood, they cook and they paint.
A peek into Adam Kilcollins' first grade classroom reveals a unique setup, one that school Executive Director Gavin Keller says has helped keep everyone healthy, even through the winter COVID-19 spikes.
Kilcollins’ class is divided into three groups. One cohort is sitting 6 feet apart on long picnic tables under tent canopies just outside the door to their indoor classroom. Another cohort is inside the classroom with Kilcollins. A third group, whose families have opted to keep them home, are participating remotely.
Every two days, the inside and outside groups switch places.
During a recent math class, Kilcollins kept an eye on his “outside friends” through his classroom windows, frequently swiveling his head to see his inside students, all while monitoring his laptop and document camera at a standing desk to keep track of kids at home.
Keller, the Journey School director, says his teachers are juggling a lot, but have really seemed to embrace this method. And parents, he adds, love that their kids can be back almost full time.
The school also provides a teaching aide to help children sitting outside. And while they have their laptops open to hear Kilcollins’ Zoom lesson, they are using pencil and paper to do the actual work, reducing the amount of screen time.
“There are some challenges in having an outdoor classroom,” Keller said, noting that weather is a big one. “We had a storm three weeks ago that came through that was fairly significant and we were unable to offer that instruction outdoors. And in that scenario, we pivoted to remote learning for those students that were scheduled to be outside.”
When the weather pushes 100 degrees, as it can in May and June, Keller says the outside cohort will stay home.
Even if the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention eventually removes the social distancing requirements and all children can fit back in the classroom, Keller says the outdoor setup will remain.
“I think that it's really handy for teachers to have an outdoor learning classroom immediately adjacent to their classroom building for students that might need a break, for small group work, for just getting outside and doing some work in the fresh air,” Keller said.
Deepa Fernandes is a reporting fellow at Pacific Oaks College, which is funded in part by First 5 LA.