Teachers and students enjoy outdoor classrooms in Barrington

Three outdoor classrooms created behind Hampden Meadows School

By Josh Bickford
Posted 10/14/20

Mark Whittaker has always enjoyed taking his students outdoors for some of their lessons.

The Hampden Meadows School teacher said he has long incorporated trips outdoors into his curriculum plans: …

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Teachers and students enjoy outdoor classrooms in Barrington

Three outdoor classrooms created behind Hampden Meadows School


Mark Whittaker has always enjoyed taking his students outdoors for some of their lessons.

The Hampden Meadows School teacher said he has long incorporated trips outdoors into his curriculum plans: "I kind of have a method to my madness. You change their environment and change their frame of mind, you can access different parts of their brain, different parts of their spirit, different parts of their being."

So when district officials sent out a message to teachers earlier this year encouraging them to take their students outside whenever possible, Mr. Whittaker was thrilled.

The excitement has grown, first by the creation of three outdoor classrooms located in the woods behind Hampden Meadows School, and subsequently by the sight of teachers and students using the outdoor learning spaces.

"It gives the kids something to look forward to," Mr. Whittaker said. "With all the stuff we have to follow, the protocols, this gives them something to be excited about, to be really happy about."

How it started

Weeks ago, Mr. Whittaker built a plan to create an outdoor learning space in the woods behind the school. He knew that guidelines and restrictions established for indoor learning — face coverings required and social distancing mandated — would present some challenges. But bringing students outside offered new opportunities.

Mr. Whittaker faced the daunting task, however, of building an outdoor classroom that was safe for teachers and students, and the woods behind the school had become overgrown with brambles and brush.

Mr. Whittaker said he saw a post on Facebook from a friend who was offering a "Bobcat for hire." He imagined using the Bobcat to clear out the vines and open up the woods.

"I called him up and said 'You want to go out in the woods and clear a space for me?' And he was all over it. He was the first person I mentioned it to and he was so gun-hoe for it. But then we talked later and he said 'My dad won't let me do it.' He didn't want to get in trouble with the town.

"Then he said to me, 'Call Steve Boyajian. He's an attorney, he's on the town council and he's a good friend of mine. I said I know Steve, I grew up with him too."

One Saturday morning, Mr. Whittaker went out to the woods behind the school with some hedge trimmers and began clearing away some of the brambles when he noticed two boys ride by on their bicycles. One of the boys was Mr. Boyajian's son.

That night Mr. Whittaker received a phone from Mr. Boyajian.

"I didn't even have to call him. He says 'Mark, what are we doing?'"

The following Saturday morning, Mr. Whittaker and Mr. Boyajian met in the woods to discuss the project.

"I told him what we needed and he was like 'Why don't we get the town to do it? Why don't we get the town to bring in the machines to get it done?'" Mr. Whittaker said.

Before long, Mr. Whittaker's plan had gained momentum and support.

A crew from the Barrington Department of Public Works partnered with Mr. Whittaker and others to clear a section of the woods. They graded the land and brought in loads of mulch. When the work was finished, the school had three outdoor classrooms.

"It's safe now," Mr. Whittaker said. "They literally delivered like 60 yards or 90 yards of mulch. They leveled it. They graded it. It's wide open."

Barrington DPW Superintendent John Renquinha brought in a chainsaw and cut up some already-downed trees, creating dozens of small stump seats.

"He left us with 90 stumps," Mr. Whittaker said. "We spaced them all six feet apart. This is the teacher's stump."

Mr. Whittaker pointed to a stump that stood about three feet tall, a good height for a teacher to place his or her materials upon while leading a class. The taller stump was surrounded by smaller stumps, each placed six feet or farther from the other.

The layout, Mr. Whittaker said, allows the students to take off their face coverings while they do their work outside.

"Teachers come out here and they feel safe. They can actually teach out here," Mr. Whittaker said. "I see classes come out here with their notebooks, with their sketchbooks. There's art classes coming out here too. There's music classes coming out here. It's happening. I'm thrilled — I know there's value in going outside. That's just something that I know. So, to see other teachers using it, makes me really happy."

Hampden Meadows School fourth grade teacher Kristin Mitchell has used the outdoor classrooms multiple times.

"I thought it was an amazing space. It was more about the kids' reactions to be honest," she said. "Even before we got out there, they were so excited… They love it because they can get outside — and we're all six feet apart. If they're far enough apart, the kids can take their masks off.

"I think it's a really great opportunity for tech-free time, because they're going to be on their computers a lot."

Ms. Mitchell said she encourages the students in her class doing distance learning to take their learning outside (with parents' permission, of course) whenever she brings in her in-school students to one of the outdoor classrooms.

Ms. Mitchell said the space has been great.

"I absolutely would recommend it to others," she said, referring to the district's other schools.

Hampden Meadows School Principal Tracey McGee agrees. The elementary school's leader has long been a proponent of outdoor education.

"I'd recommend this nationwide. It doesn't have to be something elaborate with all of this stone and brickwork. Simple, simple, simple. It's about having a place and having the kids," she said.

Ms. McGee praised Mr. Whittaker for his work, especially for his efforts helping to coordinate the project.

Mr. Whittaker was quick to share the credit with town officials and volunteers who stepped up to turn his idea into reality.

"I have to thank the town of Barrington, John Renquinha, Steve Boyajian, Kevin, Brian, the guys that were there who pulled off. They made it happen," Mr. Whittaker said. "They were actually scheduled to do another job with the machine that they have, and they took it off that.

"I don't want to toot my own horn, I just want people to enjoy it."

Meanwhile, Mr. Whittaker also worked with volunteers who helped build some bike jumps in the woods. There had been other jumps in the space that was turned into the outdoor classrooms, and Mr. Whittaker wanted to make sure that there would still be an opportunity for bikers to have fun in the woods.

"The thing that's going to make this successful is the bike part. We built jumps. We built bigger jumps … so the kids don't come in here and vandalize it. This doesn't belong to the school. This is open space. This is recreational space," he said.

Adjusting to the outdoors

Mr. Whittaker said teaching outdoors does present some unique circumstances — for example, acorns and pinecones do not typically cover the floor of an indoor classroom.

In an effort to limit the distractions — including the potential use of acorns and pinecones as projectiles — Mr. Whittaker and the other teachers at Hampden Meadows School have established some clear expectations from their students.

"So I set a goal. The goal is, we're going to go out and we're going to read for 20 minutes. That's the first thing we do …" he said. "They prove to me that they can read, and do that, and stay on task, then we write. The next time we come out we do some writing. Then the next time we come out they do some drawing, some sketches. It's a matter of earning it every time. The fourth time we go out and we build forts."

Ms. Mitchell said setting expectations has proven valuable, although she tries to remain flexible in her approach.

"We allow kids to use fidget (spinners) in class," she added.

Mr. Whittaker added: "There's certainly an excitement … once you get past that and you realize we're out here to do some work then I find that, you just set the purpose. I find that they do really well and the quality of work is better."

Nature's classroom

Hampden Meadows School fourth grade teacher Carrie Clegg has been bringing her classes outside for years. She initially worked with the Audubon Society to create an outdoor curriculum, and she regularly brought her students to Kent Street Pond as part of their lessons.

The creation of the new outdoor classrooms on the town-owned land behind Hampden Meadows School has afforded Ms. Clegg another opportunity to bring learning outside.

"I'm thrilled," she said.

Ms. Clegg said her students have enjoyed learning outdoors. In addition to offering the students a chance to work without their face coverings, it also incorporates nature into lesson plans.

"The other day, they had to find two different kinds of leaves…" she said. The students had to identify which type of tree the leaves came from, build a list of similarities and differences, and then sketch the leaves.

Ms. Clegg said students have enjoyed being in a classroom setting without their face coverings.

"When they're out there, on the stumps, they get to see each other's faces. That's the only time. That's huge," she said.

Ms. Clegg said the outdoor classrooms are used very frequently by many of the teachers at HMS.

"Today we had three classrooms out there all socially distanced," she said.

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