When your classroom is a garden

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Editor’s note: This story led off this week’s Early Childhood newsletter, which is delivered free to subscribers’ inboxes every other Wednesday with trends and top stories about early learning.


Researchers have found kindergarten through third grade classes spend, on average, 89 minutes a day on English language arts, 57 minutes a day on math — and just 18 minutes a day on science.

One way advocates are trying to encourage more science time? Adding outdoor classrooms to elementary schools.

Such efforts can only improve current practices. According to the 2018 National Survey of Science and Mathematics Education, which compiled the information on minutes spent learning science, only 17 percent of early elementary classes had science lessons most days of the week.

“We think the best kind of science that happens at that level is real-world based,” said Jeanne McCarty, CEO of Out Teach, a national nonprofit that promotes new approaches to science education and builds outdoor learning labs at schools. “We work with schools to engage kids in much more hands-on science learning outdoors, that not only gives them that foundational knowledge they need early on, but it also helps inspire them to see themselves as scientist and think about science as a future career path.”

Schools that get an outdoor learning lab also get coaching on teaching science in the lab. The outdoor lessons are tailored to where students live — a school in Texas, for example, uses a section of their lab to grow a salsa garden and native yucca plants. The labs vary, but typically include garden beds, weather stations, earth science stations and signs to reinforce concepts students are learning.

One goal of installing the labs, McCarty said, is to give teachers an outdoor space where they can not only teach science, but also embed science instruction into other subjects. The hope is these lessons will also spark students’ interest in science at a young age.

Some research seems to back this idea up — a study from 2017 found that, after an innate interest in science, women in STEM-related fields were more likely to point to playing or spending time outdoors as the spark for their initial interest in STEM than other activities. Most respondents said they became interested in STEM prior to sixth grade.

“Anything we can do to help get kids to see science and STEM as things that are useful to them and things they can interact with and they can do, or recognize things around them in the world that are happening — that’s going to be really valuable,” said Adam Maltese, one of the study’s authors and a professor of science education at Indiana University.

With a set amount of instructional time each day, elementary schools are less likely to significantly shift class time to science because most states do not have accountability measures tied to science as they do for reading and math. But embedding science instruction into other subjects has had positive results, said Jenny Sarna, director of director of the NextGenScience project of nonpartisan research agency WestEd. The project is a multi-state effort to create common teaching standards for science from kindergarten through 12th grade.

“Students who have positive science identities are more likely to see themselves as a science person, or good at science, and then they’re more likely to pursue STEM careers,” Sarna said.

A study of first grade students whose classroom used a curriculum that embedded science into language arts found that the students performed higher than their peers on standardized science tests at the end of the school year, and their reading performance was the same.

“Those students learn more science and the same amount of literacy, so if you could pick between your kid having science and reading every day, or just reading, it’s kind of a no-brainer,” Sarna said.

This story about outdoor learning labs was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for Hechinger’s newsletter.

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