This Teacher's Outdoor Classroom During Covid Inspired 'a Wave' of Others: 'We Saw a Change in Students'
Educator Nicholas Dixon knew his students needed a breath of fresh air after enduring the strain of the COVID-19 lockdown.
"We serve a lot of kids that have tremendous talents, but also have had tremendous trauma due to the pandemic," Dixon, 39, says as he embarks on a new school term this August. "Getting out of the classroom provided such a relief emotionally for a lot of our kids and teachers."
At Julius L. Foust Elementary school in Greensboro, NC, the pandemic opened doors to a new way of teaching after Principal Dixon won a $13,000 grant from the North Carolina Wildlife Council.
He put his bucks towards purchasing equipment from a company in Canada for an outdoor classroom. The chairs, tables and a huge chalkboard all reflecting an outdoorsy feel with the desks looking like tree stumps. Dixon went with his gut when ordering, and now jokes that he may have forgotten how quickly kids grow and future purchases will definitely offer more sizes.
Construction was completed in Dec. 2020, just before students returned to in-person schooling. Dixon felt the transition back to school would be softened by the option of learning outside.
"The research is there about so many neurological effects, benefits to it. Kids are more motivated. They tend to be more engaged when they're outdoors," Dixon says.
And, he felt his own experiences taking his students out of the confinement of a classroom made him a better teacher.
"Just being outdoors affected my own well-being," Dixon says. "It's made me more in tune with what my students are needing."
Even before COVID-19 restrictions, Dixon had a goal to have outdoor learning spaces. Distance learning requirements during the 2020-2021 school year made that dream a reality.
"I think this pandemic provided a great opportunity for us to innovate and just to reconsider some of the ways that we have taught and make some improvements," Dixon says.
The newly-built site quickly became much in demand by all the teachers at Foust, which educates about 400 Pre-K to 5 thgrade students.
"From higher education on down, you can find a lesson that can be taught outside," Dixon says. "I vividly remember when I was teaching economics to high school students and I saw inspirations right there while I was outside."
He fondly remembers teaching his students about supply and demand by pointing out cars to create an example of the economic concept in terms of their own lives.
"There are so many inspirations that can be applicable," Dixon says.
Foust teacher Jennifer Stalls talked about two boys in her classroom whose participation and excitement tripled when they went to the outdoor classroom.
"Being in that setting allowed them to come out of their shell," Stalls says.
Dixon encouraged his fellow teachers to use the setting however they saw fit, and his hands-off approach was rewarded by creative uses the teachers found in their new classroom — and the students' eager response.
A natural sciences encouraged students to interact with the environment around them and consider how they might preserve it, "and we saw a change in the students," Dixon says.
From there, he says, environmental justice components came into play. And students began taking an active role in preserving the area around their outdoor classroom.
"They took pride in the place," Dixon says. "I love the fact that the teachers took a space and made an interdisciplinary discussion out of that in the hope those kids will remember what they've learned."
Dixon knows there will be even more experimentation in the coming year.
"We teach now in a class without borders, where every space could be a learning space for our kids and an environment where they could flourish," says Dixon. "I'm looking for even more innovative teaching practices and lessons coming out of that outdoor space."
Dixon's outdoor classroom was featured in PEOPLE last spring, sparking an interest in both his own school district but all over the country from teachers eager to embrace innovative ways of teaching.
"That story started a wave and people realized that this was something they could have been doing all along," Dixon says.
What was started during the last school year will be amplified going into the less-restricted new school year.
"Our district is going to provide a lot of support financially to outfit other schools with outdoor classrooms, " Dixon says. "Our district is making a huge investment in developing more outdoor spaces."
Dixon's dream will be expanding as rebuilding begins on the site.
"We will have a brand-new school on our site, and already in the plan is to create outdoor learning space, that hybrid environment of outdoor/indoor," Dixon says.