ITHACA, N.Y. — In an effort to encourage outdoor learning, the Ithaca Children’s Garden and the Cornell Masters of Public Health Program Support Outdoor Learning is collaborating with eight Ithaca City School District elementary schools to provide students with educational opportunities in nature. 

The program comes thanks to a multi-year Farm to Table grant. The Cornell Atkinson Center for Sustainability and Engaged Cornell is also supporting the program, and the specific learning programs for each different schools were developed using Green Schoolyards America guidelines. 

The program is focused on children’s “happiness and joy,” cost effectiveness, equity, highlighting overlapping uses, emphasizing flexibility with temporary interventions and avoiding metal and plastic materials, as those are more likely to transmit coronavirus. Ithaca Children’s Garden Executive Director Erin Marteal said the outdoor learning experience would be particularly crucial considering the time children have likely spent indoors during the quarantine period over the last several months as the coronavirus pandemic rages onward—both for student enrichment and to give them a break from the indoors. 

“By moving instruction outdoors, whether all day every day, half the day, or even an additional hour or two each day, learners and teachers can realize a number of well-documented benefits while reducing risk of COVID infection,” Marteal said in a press release. “With appropriate planning and community engagement, the benefits of implementing a plan to integrate more outdoor learning will outlast the pandemic.” 

Marteal said the outdoor aspects of the learning experiences would benefit students in a creative way that is inaccessible when inside. 

“Spending time in nature is well-documented to support academic success, foster social development, improve learning and decrease stress,” Marteal said. “When a student engages with nature, that child can find a sense of place, belonging and a connection to the environment.”

ICSD has had some nature-based and outdoor elements in its curriculum before, gradually building it over the last several years, and officials said that the new resources and partnership would be able to extend those efforts beyond what the district had already employed. 

“This is a natural progression of the place-based and project-based learning that ICSD has been excelling in over the last decade,” said Mary Grover, ICSD’s Inclusion Officer and the project liaison. “It builds on our case study curriculum culture and our district’s commitment to supporting all learners. Many of our schools already have unique outdoor learning facilities. This project engages our educators in identifying barriers and solutions while naming the existing assets unique to each school community and using them more intentionally for instruction.”

Featured photo by Chrys Gardener

Matt Butler is the Editor in Chief of The Ithaca Voice. He can be reached by email at