Outdoor Learning at the Pacific School

The Pacific Community Charter School embraces real-world learning at school, in the community, in the field and out in the bigger world. How does that translate during the pandemic? Outdoor learning. The Pacific School applied for a waiver from the State in the beginning of the 2020-21 school year to provide weekly outdoor learning days for K-5 students (the waiver was available for K-6 grades; Pacific School 6th graders are part of a mixed middle school class). Outdoor protocols, such as facial coverings, distancing and health screenings, were developed and are followed by participating students, staff and families. Choosing to hold classes outdoors also aligned with studies that indicate being outdoors reduces the risk of COVID-19 transmission: according to an initial Japanese study the risk is reduced by as much as 19 times.

Audrey Lareau developed a Forest Kindergarten program at the Pacific School in 2018 and so it didn’t take much to adapt her “Forest Days” for outdoor learning. Before the pandemic Kindergarteners met twice a week at off-campus locations for Forest Days and three times a week in their classroom. To maintain staffing and cohort requirements, Forest Days have been offered once per week this year and an additional day of outdoor in-person learning at the K-8 site was recently added. Students have been tracking water during Forest Days at Bowling Ball Beach, Schooner Gulch and Oz Farm—when the creeks went from dry, to puddled, to flowing; how the creek sometimes moves around at Schooners; the differences at the beach at different tides and how the waves change; which trees make the best canopies for rainy days. Lareau has helped her students understand physical distancing by making little “nests” during snack time; distanced lily pads and clipboards help with circle time when students are practicing their writing skills. Lareau looks forward to adding more in-person Forest Kindergarten days this month as she recognizes “how much the children thrive when they receive direct, live attention and feedback from their teachers and peers.”

K-8 Director Todd Orenick also teaches 1st-2nd grades and supported the initial push for in-person outdoor learning days “to support his students’ well-being by providing time for face-to-face interactions.” Orenick has been joined by Ann Lytle, Instructional Aide and ACORN Partners in Education Educator, who has been assisting in leading weekly classes at Windy Hollow Farm where the garden is used as a teaching tool. Recently students have been busy planting a spring garden which is complemented with storytelling, journaling and games that dig deeper into science concepts such life cycles and botany. Second grader Ray Whiteside “likes to plant plants” and says that is his favorite part of outdoor learning days. On March 8th, students will be adding another day of in-person learning at the Pacific School’s new outdoor classroom at the K-8 site. Grants from the Community Foundation of Mendocino County and the Redwood Coast Education Foundation allowed the purchase of materials while school families and community members volunteered to help create the outdoor space for students and teachers to participate with in-person learning.

Isabel Kuniholm, a self-described outdoor enthusiast and Pacific School teacher, also meets at Windy Hollow Farm with her 3rd-5th grade class. Instructional Aide Tressla Sarra has brought students to Windy Hollow Farm for garden-based field studies pre-COVID and now provides support with reading, writing and spelling while on the farm. Kuniholm has noticed that “learning outside enables students to constantly be moving and exploring. A math lesson can be quickly diverted by a student's discovery of a centipede, passing hawk, or a huge gust of wind but this allows for learning to be fluid, flexible and exciting!” Teaching outside is not without its challenges though. As Kuniholm can attest, “the weather can make pencil and paper activities challenging at times, especially during times of heavy rain or wind. Sometimes I feel like students cannot hear me, or everyone's papers blow away mid lesson. Still, these challenging weather days can also provide great social-emotional and science-oriented learning opportunities for students.” She looks forward to bringing students outdoors for academics on a daily basis post-pandemic.

The decision to integrate outdoor learning days with distance learning was guided by the need for supporting students' social and emotional well-being as much as the need for providing academic support. As Forest Kindergarten teacher Lareau noted, “being together in person is so important for the development of their social and emotional skills.” This sentiment also holds true with 2nd grader Talula Boucher who says that “my favorite thing about outdoor learning is seeing my friends and playing games. I like the chickens too.”

The Pacific School is committed to adding more in-person learning opportunities as the local and county-wide case rates continue to decrease, vaccines become more readily available and the conditions allow. Open enrollment for the 2021-22 school year is currently happening and families are invited to attend an outdoor K-8 Open House on Wednesday, March 31 from 1:00 – 4:00 or by appointment. Facial coverings and physical distancing will be required at the Open House. Visit www.pacificcharterschool.org or call 707-882-4131 for more information about the Pacific School.