Students at Peralta Elementary School in North Oakland learn outside while sitting in camping chairs. Credit: Amir Aziz

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Now that some Oakland students are back on campus for in-person learning, many teachers are bringing their students outside—both because it’s safer than being indoors, and because it gives students an opportunity to explore and learn from their environment. 

The Oakland Unified School District has provided 29 elementary schools with tents, tables, chairs, and whiteboards for use outside. By July, all OUSD elementary schools are expected to have outdoor learning spaces. It could be a sign that learning outside will become part of education’s new normal beyond the pandemic. 

At Peralta Elementary, a group of parent volunteers had been thinking, since before the pandemic began, about how the school could incorporate more of the outdoors into its curriculum. The North Oakland campus was already home to seven gardens, including a memorial garden for a student who died this year, a bee garden, a kindergarten yard, and more. 

When the pandemic hit, the need to learn outdoors became even more pressing, but the school’s parents didn’t want to overburden teachers, who were figuring out how to make virtual learning work.

“They were in crisis mode, getting up and going with distance learning and pivoting to something so different,” said Sarah Selvidge, a parent of fourth and second graders on the garden committee. “And now [we’re asking them] to redesign school again? For the second time in a year?”

The Peralta parents stepped up and brainstormed how they could maximize the outdoor space on the campus and set up more outdoor classrooms, in addition to those made possible with the tents provided by OUSD. They also made use of funds that were donated to Peralta following a devastating fire in 2007, which the group used to pay for more tents, shade sails, camping chairs, umbrellas, and outdoor sound buffers to place on the fences facing Alcatraz Avenue, where the road is under construction.

In all, they’ve spent about $13,000 so far, and realize what a privilege it is to have access to that, Selvidge said. 

“We didn’t know about this funding initially, we didn’t know what we could get approved by the district. We didn’t know what the teachers wanted, and we didn’t know when we were coming back,” said Christine Martin, another garden committee mom of a second grader, who also works as a landscape design artist. “Initially, we didn’t even think school would open this year, so we were planning on completing this for August.”

Desks and chairs underneath a tent at the Peralta Elementary School yard. Credit: Amir Aziz

Doing school outside isn’t as simple as putting desks and chairs under a tent and giving the same lesson as one would indoors. In many instances, teachers try to incorporate the outdoors into their classes. For example, first graders at Peralta complete a unit on bees. Peralta’s garden committee maintains the pollination garden outside of the first grade classrooms where a variety of flowering plants attract insects. Now, students can observe bee behavior up close. 

Next week, the school will host “STEAM Night” (science, technology, engineering, arts, and math) where students will learn about careers related to STEAM fields. Students have been preparing by creating scientific drawings in chalk on the concrete courts on campus and every student who participates will win a prize. 

“COVID has just given us all that extra push to find ways to use the outside,” said Jennifer Everhart, the enrichment teacher at Peralta. Everhart teaches social and emotional learning skills to kindergarten and first graders, and technology skills to second through fifth graders once a week. 

As one of the first teachers to return to her campus last month, she piloted outdoor learning with a group of students attending the school’s learning hub. Being outside, she said, made her feel more comfortable and safer than if they were indoors. And the students were thrilled to be back at school and able to spend time outside. They did jumping jacks and ran laps around the basketball court, and took some time to write poetry and other art activities while sitting outside. 

Students read and complete assignments under a tree on the north end of the campus. Credit: Amir Aziz

Another  innovation to create outdoor spaces for learning included simply dragging picnic tables out of the sun and underneath a shady tree. They drilled holes into the centers of other tables to fit patio umbrellas. Some classes make use of sanded down tree stumps as tables or chairs. A local business donated carpet squares, and now kindergarten and first grade classes use them to sit on during their outdoor reading circles. 

Students, teachers, and parents are hopeful that outdoor learning can remain a part of Oakland school curriculum beyond the pandemic. The parents on the garden committee plan on using the summer to collaborate with other schools and share what they’ve learned, and hope to pick up tips from other campuses where outdoor learning has also been successful. As they put up temporary shade structures for now, they’ve also planted more trees that will eventually provide natural shade. 

At Hoover Elementary in West Oakland, teachers Kate Sbani and Gabi Lapointe serve as the stewards of the school’s bountiful garden on the east end of the campus, along with Wanda Stewart, an urban farmer and the school’s garden teacher. Established in 2014, the garden grows a variety of fruits, vegetables, flowers, and is even home to a chicken coop and a koi pond. Lapointe and Sbani have made it a goal to encourage more of the school’s other teachers to make use of the garden, named the Hoover Hawks Victory Garden, as a learning space, especially during the pandemic. 

Students at Sankofa United Elementary School explore the campus garden. Credit: Amir Aziz

They’ve started by inviting more teachers to distribution days, when the community can come to campus to pick up some of the garden’s recent harvest, or garden work days, when they spend a morning or afternoon maintaining the green space. The two teachers also recently gave a presentation about all the work they’ve done in the garden this year.

Prior to the pandemic and school closure, few teachers felt comfortable bringing their students out to the garden. Since in-person instruction began, every class has used it, they said.

“That’s a huge success. The school culture is shifting toward the garden, because of the craziness of this year,” said Sbani, who teaches kindergarten. 

Lapointe, who teaches second grade, and Sbani have taught their classes how to remove weeds, plant food and flowers, layer mulch, and care for the chickens. Beyond those skills, it’s an opportunity to explore the natural world and get some fresh air, after a year of being isolated indoors. And with all of the new COVID rules restricting students’ movements while at school during the pandemic, being outside gives them a bit more freedom. 

“Out here, I tell kids, ‘Go explore. You plant it, you pick where you water, you take care of that plant,” Sbani said. “They can take healthy risks, they can try new foods, they can be scared of the worms and learn how to dig for them. They can let the chickens out and catch them.”

And students who struggle in the classroom might find that their strengths are outdoors, working with plants, Lapointe added. 

The two teachers are also thinking about how they can use the garden to invite more family engagement. Once families know that they can come to campus for fresh fruits and vegetables, the teachers hope they can encourage the families to get more involved in the school site council, or other decision-making committees that parents can join. They’re also planning to put together an activities guide for other teachers to use when they come to the Hoover garden. 

Seated in camping chairs, Students at Sankofa United Elementary School eat snacks underneath a tent.

Sankofa United Elementary School sits on nearly eight acres of land in North Oakland’s Bushrod neighborhood. With some materials that the district provided, the school has three outdoor classrooms in the schoolyard, each with a different setup. In one area, underneath a tent, students sit on buckets with cushions on the seat; in another area, underneath towering redwood trees, students sit on tree stumps; in the third outdoor classroom, students use camping chairs placed on artificial turf underneath tents. Teachers sign up using a Google Doc to reserve one of the outdoor classrooms for their students, which they use for snack times, social-emotional learning, and academic lessons.

“We explored the idea of boosting our Wi-Fi out to this area,” said Sankofa United principal Dennis Guikema. “But then we decided that we would actually prefer to keep this a technology-free zone since we’re so reliant on technology for distance learning right now.” 

Students use tree stumps as chairs in an outdoor classroom at Sankofa United Elementary School.

Emma Greenberg-Bell, a FoodCorps service member, works as the garden educator for Sankofa Academy and Bella Vista Elementary School. While schools were closed, she did her garden classes virtually, gave students take-home planting kits, and tried doing a cooking class over Zoom. Now that some students are back at Sankofa, her goal is to take every class out to the garden once a week for lessons about the soil, pollination, transplanting, and other natural science topics. 

Students are eager to spend more time outdoors, Greenberg-Bell said, especially after being kept inside for much of the past year. And the topics she teaches are instrumental for students to learn. 

“Our climate is changing rapidly, and for this young generation it’s going to be super important that they are stewards of the environment,” she said. “There’s a lot of life skills in learning about how food is grown, and how our natural world interacts, because we can think about not only how we treat each other, but how we treat plants, animals, and the air.”

Ashley McBride reports on education equity for The Oaklandside. She covered the 2019 Oakland Unified School District teachers’ strike as a breaking news reporter for the San Francisco Chronicle. More recently, she was an education reporter for the San Antonio Express-News where she covered several local school districts, charter schools, and the community college system. McBride earned her master’s degree in journalism from Syracuse University, has held positions at the Palm Beach Post and the Poynter Institute, and is a recent Hearst Journalism Fellow.