Story and Photos By Beth Donze
“Teacher, can we have class outside?”
It’s a question generations of students have asked their teachers in a mostly futile bid to get out of the classroom on a beautiful day.
But at St. Margaret Mary Elementary School in Slidell, the question doesn’t even need to be raised.
Whenever teachers have a learning activity they feel would be enhanced by being out in the fresh air, they simply take their students to St. Margaret Mary’s shaded “outdoor classroom,” currently in its third year of existence.
Students eagerly take a spot on one of the outdoor classroom’s amphitheater-style benches to receive teacher-led lessons and take part in lively class discussions, maintaining their focus even against the hum of distant traffic.
The special classroom also enables students to present their own work on an outdoor “stage” – a decked space at the head of the classroom that is elevated slightly above ground level.
Any required visual aids can be easily clipped to a nearby display board.
“Being stuck inside four walls for seven hours a day, they can get restless. Coming outside gives (our students) just another space to be able to learn,” said second grade teacher Elaine Riviere, who took the idea of creating an outdoor classroom to then-principal Bobby Ohler three years ago.
Conveniently located on a large triangle of grass adjacent to covered walkways spilling off the school’s traditional classrooms, the space was completed over two summers by St. Margaret Mary’s Men’s Club. The classroom’s bench seating and stage, which mimic wood but are made of rot-resistant, splinter-free plastic, were completed in 2017; shade sails in the school colors of blue and red were added in 2018.
The teaching possibilities are endless at the space, which comfortably seats up to 40 students at a time. Over the years, it has been used by every grade as a venue for everything from math and language arts lessons, to the kindergartners’ annual Alphabet Fashion Show, to re-enactments of Bible stories.
Recently, Riviere asked her second graders to go onstage in pairs to share their homework – their original sentences on the weekly writing theme. Each student duo was challenged to identify the sentence’s subject, predicate and vocabulary words.
“(The outdoor classroom) offers a little more freedom but they still learn,” Riviere said, noting how the instruction dynamic shifts a bit when students are learning outdoors. In their traditional classroom, students tend to identify Riviere as the sole teacher, whereas both paired and group learning seem to explode when the class goes outside and students are “on stage” in front of their classmates.
“We (teachers) want them to be able to feel like they are teachers, too,” Riviere said. “I instill in my students that I am not the only teacher in the classroom. We have 23 teachers – 22 students and myself. They can teach one another. They feel more engaged. They feel more of an ownership of their work – ‘this is what I did and I want to teach you about it.’ They have really grown in confidence!”
Riviere said the outdoor classroom also lends itself to “buddy” activities between different grade levels. For example, it is used when second graders prepare for their sacraments with their fifth-grade prayer partners. Older students also use the classroom to act out skits on science lab safety for their younger schoolmates.
Teachers generally alert other faculty members when they want to use the classroom by text or Google Calendar, but sometimes things unfold more spontaneously, Riviere said.
“The (lower grade) classrooms are right there, so we (teachers) can say, ‘Nobody’s out there right now! Grab your reading books! We’re gonna partner up in the outdoor classroom!’”
The space also offers teaching moments that are not available in regular classrooms. For example, Riviere had her students measure the length of the classroom’s first and last bench and then subtract those numbers to find the difference. A nearby oak tree was measured for its circumference.
“It’s just a different environment for learning,” Riviere said. “It’s getting them out of the classroom and realizing you don’t only learn inside classroom walls; you can learn when you’re outside; you can learn when you’re on the playground.”
On Aug. 12, the St. Margaret Mary Men’s Club surprised Riviere by officially dedicating the classroom as the “Elaine H. Riviere Outdoor Learning Center.” Father Edward Grice, pastor, blessed the new sign and prayed over the classroom.
Riviere welcomes questions from educators who are interested in setting up outdoor learning spaces. She can be emailed at firstname.lastname@example.org.