Kids throughout the Baltimore area are back in classrooms after a years-long disruption that had them largely relying on screens. The pandemic gave schools and parents a new perspective on the impact of children’s environments on the learning process — and the changes being made now are a breath of fresh air.
In addition to in-school learning, some schools are now incorporating another learning environment that proved beneficial to kids when they could not gather indoors — nature.
Schools like The Highlands School, in Bel Air, and Cecil Elementary School, in Baltimore City, are moving to develop outdoor spaces for education.
The Highlands School’s new outdoor education program started last fall, in 2022, and has since been deemed a success by Claudia Nachtigal, the school’s head.
“They’re learning the soft skills that every business wants: communication, creativity, collaboration, character development and problem-solving,” Nachtigal says.
Built on the foundation of an old horse farm on an 18-acre property, The Highlands School lives up to its name, providing students with a scenic campus. Its outdoor education program encourages students to get their hands dirty and get outside to learn about the world around them. Students spend time outdoors on Fridays, learning earth science, reinforcing math skills, reading and creating art.
“It’s about getting our kids to practically apply the skills they’re learning outside,” Nachtigal says. “When they’re not with us, they’re not going outside.”
Centers for Disease Control (CDC) reports that children between ages 8 and 10 spend an average of 6 hours per day in front of screens and children who are 11 to 14 spend an average of 9 hours doing the same thing.
“We have a serious issue with nature deprivation when it comes to our children. We have kids who literally never interact with the natural environment,” Steven Preston says.
Preston is the park design and construction manager for the Parks & People Foundation, which is working with Cecil Elementary School to develop a new outdoor classroom.
Before the pandemic, Preston was working with the foundation to incorporate more green space into urban areas in Baltimore. Preston says that the pandemic helped people realize how important nature and its accessibility is for good mental and physical health. In schools, where COVID-19 is constantly making appearances, outdoor areas have become places where kids can engage with nature and learn outside of the school’s physical building. These spaces can help kids stay on track with their education despite the realities of post-pandemic life.
Designing the new space at Cecil Elementary was, in every way, intentional.
“We held a community engagement session via Zoom and met outdoors with the kids to ask what they wanted to see on the playground—what colors, what equipment. We try to connect them to these spaces and make them feel ownership of it,” Preston says. “They wanted something that was beautiful, that was safe. Something that was theirs.”
The effects of green spaces like Cecil’s are already being felt by other schools and organizations which have incorporated similar changes and by parents who take a more natural approach to teaching their children.
“They provide an opportunity for children and families to talk about natural resources, the environment and our local, state and national parks,” says Mary
Hastler, CEO and director of Harford County Public Libraries (HCPL).
HCPL has 11 branches in Harford County, including Aberdeen. Aberdeen’s outdoor story garden had its ribbon cutting in August 2022.
The new garden has a “whimsical” iron gate, resilient outdoor flooring, good drainage, heaters for cold weather, fans for hot weather, an awning, stools, park benches and interactive activities to support each day’s theme.
To Hastler, this addition is part of what it means to be a library.
“We are so much more than just books,” Hastler says.
Libraries are a community educational space where people of all ages can share their love of learning, their knowledge and their inspiration with others. Public outdoor spaces at libraries and parks that give children room to learn from nature-connected education are helping to close generational gaps created by formal schooling.
Formal schooling isn’t right for everyone. That’s what local Baltimore parent Carrie Herzberger discovered after more than a decade working in education.
Herzberger understands the importance of a nature-connected education well, in seeing how her own children thrived when they were able to let their curiosity run wild.
“The more entrenched I was in the system, the more I realized I didn’t want that kind of experience for my kids,” Herzberger says.
Adding curriculum to nature has been a success for The Highlands School. The outdoor education program has been met with praise from parents, according to Nachtigal.
“Parents have said their kids are progressing in academics—‘we’ve seen progress, we’re not fighting about homework anymore, their confidence has shifted,” she says.
With other public space projects Preston has been involved with, he says children are taking to the new outdoor educational spaces like moths to a flame.
“Within an hour of the classroom opening, kids were out there, pretending to be students and teachers,” Preston says.
Though there is no one right way to involve nature in your child’s education, the benefits come from giving your child access and options.
Herzberger started with homeschooling but found it wasn’t effective for her family, which is when she moved to unschooling for her two daughters.
Unschooling is where children are allowed to learn on their own terms, based on what interests them. Rather than the regimented routines of traditional schooling, unschooling is a practice that takes advantage of a child’s natural curiosity and the development of practical skills—including experiences within outdoor spaces.
“As a family, our life just flows,” Herzberger says. “At this point, I can’t imagine having to be up and regimented and ready for school with a backpack packed, especially for one of my children. I don’t think that amount of structure or routine would work well.”
Herzberger’s experience with nature-connected education isn’t limited to her own children. During the pandemic, when a majority of kids programming shut down, she ran programs for children outdoors.
“Twelve-year-olds don’t want to hear that they’re playing, so I called it active outdoor unstructured exploration,” she says. “We didn’t plan anything, we just saw what unfolded and I tried to intervene as little as possible.
The result? Endless creativity and fun. Children created concerts with rocks and sticks; asked questions about animals, insects and plants and learned to be protective of natural spaces.
“When they see trash on the ground [and] the habitats being taken away, it’s so different from reading about it,” Herzberger says.
Connecting your child with nature is important for nurturing their minds and bodies. By giving your child room to grow and the freedom to explore, they can fall in love with learning about the world around them.