The Natural World as Classroom

by John Mazzello, Project Coordinator

Conference attendees exploring an outdoor classroom area with many logs, branches, blocks, and other natural materials

“Messy Materials” area at the Arbor Day Farm outdoor classroom

If you’ve been following Prairie Rivers of Iowa’s Facebook page or newsletter, you might remember that we are working on a unique project with the opportunity to affect how Iowa’s students of all ages experience and learn about the environment and the natural world around us. Through our “Outdoor Learning Environments in Iowa” project, funded by grants from Iowa’s Living Roadway Trust Fund and the Resource Enhancement and Protection Conservation Education Program (REAP CEP), we are exploring the state of outdoor classrooms in Iowa and building resources and guidance to assist future creators and funders in developing successful and sustainable outdoor learning sites.

This summer, with the assistance of Prairie Rivers of Iowa’s Mike Brandrup, we have completed site visits to outdoor classrooms previously supported by the Living Roadway Trust Fund and surveyed outdoor educators and school staff on the successes and challenges of using outdoor spaces to deepen learning across all subject areas. While there are major challenges, such as maintaining and sustaining outdoor learning environments long-term and building community support and volunteer networks, there are also important opportunities: many places in Iowa, including schools, have healthy outdoor spaces in which students can learn about the natural world or reap the benefits of experiencing nature no matter their area of study; educators of all stripes, from teachers and principals, to early childhood educators, to community center staff, are committed to deepening student learning outdoors; and there is a vibrant and growing network of experts here in Iowa and across the country ready to share their experiences with us.

Nature Explore outdoor classroom entry made of tree trunks and limbs

Entryway to outdoor classroom at the Arbor Day Farm

Recently, Prairie Rivers of Iowa’s Outdoor Learning Environments Project Coordinator, John Mazzello, and Local Foods Systems Coordinator, Ruth Powell, had the opportunity to attend the Nature Explore/Outdoor Classroom Project Leadership Institute, a conference dedicated to creating and strengthening outdoor learning environments, at the Lied Lodge at Arbor Day Farm in Nebraska City, Nebraska. At this conference, we explored research-based approaches to creating outdoor classrooms, and keeping them strong over the course of many years. This work, supported by the Arbor Day Foundation and the Dimensions Educational Research Foundation, is just the starting point for exciting future research plans that aim to clearly document the value of outdoor classrooms for students of all ages. Beyond research, we were also inspired by practitioners of outdoor classroom design and implementation, and had a chance to see and explore model outdoor classroom sites. Most importantly, we had the chance to make personal connections with some of the country’s leading experts in outdoor learning environment design and implementation, connections that will serve us well as we prepare our guidance for Iowans later this year.

A path through tall grass and wildflower plantings

A “pathway through plantings” is a method for engaging students by enabling them to travel through plantings rather than completely around them

Your help is needed to ensure that all the voices of outdoor classrooms in Iowa are heard! If you have an outdoor classroom at your site, or if you wish to create one, we’d like to hear from you. Please call us or email me at jmazzello@prrcd.org and I would be happy to talk with you and get your feedback on what support is needed and what opportunities exist. This is an exciting project and one we are looking forward to sharing as work continues.

Learn more about this project at https://old.prrcd.org/what-we-do/initiatives-collaborations/outdoor-learning-environments-iowa/