Boston's newest classrooms: schoolyards
In sprucing up playgrounds, the Boston Schoolyard Initiative has found a way to help kids learn.
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The teachers on hand during the tour made it easy for visitors to imagine children's delight in the outdoor classroom at the William Monroe Trotter Elementary School in Boston's Dorchester neighborhood. Third-grade teacher Christine Whittemore's face lit up as she explained the concept of the garden she stood in: Corn, beans, and squash all grow in one plot – a "three sisters" garden like the kind the Wampanoag Indians showed to the Pilgrims. It ties in well with social studies lessons, she said.Skip to next paragraph
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The area used to be a vacant, trashy lot and now nurtures plants that attract butterflies. A square wooden pole sports a weather vane and thermometers, so students can correlate temperature to where the sun is.
"[The kids] sort of recognize this as kind of a special place. They're quieter, more orderly," Ms. Whittemore said.
Researchers have looked at the effect on learning outcomes. In Boston schools with renovated yards, about 25 percent more fourth-graders passed the state math test, after controlling for such factors as family income.
Everyone involved deserves credit for the "passion" surrounding these spaces, says Russ Lopez, an environmental health professor at Boston University who co-wrote that study. "If the school department had just gone in and rebuilt the schoolyard, I don't think there would have been nearly as good an impact.... The fact that they got the teachers involved, and the parents and neighborhoods, ... made this project more successful."
Visitors from Oakland, Calif., enjoyed seeing up close what they've already turned to as a model. The relatively new Oakland Schoolyard Initiative seeks to transform 50 schoolyards over the next 10 years. Meanwhile, the collaboration has sparked creative solutions. "Our schools, all they have is asphalt," said Michelle Doppelt of the Oakland Parks and Recreation Department. A park she oversees has grass and a creek, while the nearby school has only a basketball court. "We swap usage," she said, so park programs can include basketball and schoolchildren can do gardening.
The outdoor classrooms and curriculum made an impression as well. "So much has been all about testing, all about the classroom, but science is much more than that," said Scott Burg, who served as a consultant on health and wellness for the Oakland Unified School District. "This is all science," he said, motioning toward trees as he walked through one of the schoolyard sites. "Get the kids outside."