Outdoor classroom exposes students to hands on education in a natural location

Nick Jones doesn’t need to leave school to study a real life praying mantis. The 13-year-old only needs to step outside.

“When you’re in the classroom they’re teaching you about nature, but you don’t really get that effect,” he said. “But when you’re outside in nature, you kind of understand and get things a bit more.”

For six years, students at Postlethwait Middle School have been using an outdoor classroom. The area of trees, shrubs and a mini stream lined with rocks is the reason the school is receiving the Superstar in Education Award from the Delaware Chamber of Commerce.

The award is given each year for excellence in education. Schools submit an application and the Chamber chooses a winner based on factors including impact and ingenuity.

Science teacher Todd Klawinski was the driving force behind the outdoor classroom. In 2010 he asked if he could convert a section of the lawn, the size of a small cabin, into a natural habitat.

“I was looking out the window and thinking if teachers could have this area,” he said. “[The principal] was looking at me like I was kind of crazy, but said ‘sure, what do you want it for?’”

Klawinski said the classroom is a way to increase students’ interest in nature. For part of their class session he’ll take them outside, where they’ll capture and study aquatic life such as frogs and water bugs. They’ll also catch wasps and other insects, while studying invasive plant and animal species.

“We’re taking this place and making it into something where the students will have hands-on, outdoor experiences,” he said.

The classroom includes sections of a forest, meadow and a swamp. This ensures students are educated on biodiversity and different aspects of the natural world. But exposing kids to nature is only a part of the plan. There’s also an economic component.

“The kids can actually learn in an area that is a lot like the natural world without having to take a field trip, getting on bus and spending all that fuel and money,” he said. “We have it right here in our back yard.”

Creating the next generation of scientists is a tantalizing thought for Klawinski, who has been teaching for 15 years. He’s concerned there aren’t enough students pursuing careers in the environmental sciences.

“We used to spend so much more time outdoors and now we’ve gradually switched that with tech and stuff,” he said. “The only time we get outdoors is as a token, almost an award for the kid, and that’s a reverse psychology that we’re trying to change.”

Mark DiMaio, director of partnership with the Chamber of Commerce, said it was a mixture of ingenuity and other factors that earned Postlethwait the award.

“The thing that jumped off the page for the reviewer was their DCAS score around the sciences,” he said. According to DiMaio, test scores in science have been increasing ever since the classroom was created.

Ryanna Morgan, 14, said going outside to learn is different, but exciting.

“I really enjoy having the outdoor classroom around because some kids don’t work well while they are in confined spaces like classrooms and stuff,” she said. “It’s like a new take on education.”

Klawinski is looking forward to the classroom expanding in the future.

“These kids’ minds actually need a little hummock to trip over. They need the grass to peek through,” he said. “We’re restoring the natural world so in 100 years when I’m long gone there will be 100-year-old trees here.”