Dr. Michael Fox of the geography and environment department at Mount Allison University is at the heart of a project to introduce outdoor learning at a local elementary school. Working with individuals from the school, the province, and the community, Fox is redesigning the backyard of Salem Elementary School and developing curriculum for outdoor learning. The outdoor classroom has been in use at Salem since September and was officially launched on Thursday, November 6.
Fox jokes, “your parents were right, research confirms that children benefit from spending more time outdoors.” However research also shows that, the amount of time people spend indoors in North America is increasing, to 95% by some estimates. In addition, the average North American child spends over 45% of their time in front of some sort of electronic device. Fox aims to change that.
The first phase was started this summer with the development of wetlands, gardens, and the building of two outdoor classrooms.
“In the middle of the wetlands, a local carpenter built a pirate ship that students are able to sit in as a classroom. The mast will be a wind turbine and a solar panel will gather energy for the use of a laptop computer,” explains Fox.
The idea for the project and its subsequent success came from the school’s principal, Ada Phinney according to Fox. “She saw the massive potential of the school’s location and outdoor space. She contacted the university to get us involved and was inspirational in getting the students and teachers excited about the project.”
Originally a middle school teacher, Fox saw this as a golden opportunity.
“I see our department, our students, and the larger university community contributing to this, and getting something important back. It is also one of my core research areas, one of my passions,” he says.
Fox quickly got to work getting students on board and looking for different funding sources, provincially, federally, and even internationally. He is advising Natalie Gillis, an honours environmental studies student, who is doing research and developing curriculum for outdoor education for the school.
Fox is also teaching a course called Education for Sustainable Development and has incorporated the project into the curriculum. Mount Allison students will work with each grade level and individual teachers and classes. “The students will be in the school one afternoon a week. So each will work on this notion of education for sustainable development, how it can be implemented, what are the challenges, and what are the opportunities.”
Not only will students learn the theory, but also how it works in practice, anything from recycling, alternate energy systems, agriculture, and local foods. “Reading an academic article is one thing but to have the opportunity to help children understand these concepts is wonderful. It is an opportunity to put theory into practice.”
The best part of the project for Fox is what it will mean for the children. “You can have a field trip every day,” he says.
Photo captions: Mount Allison geography and environment professor Dr. Mike Fox speaks to students and teachers at Salem Elementary during the construction and official opening of the school's new outdoor classroom.