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Outdoor Classrooms Still Hold Appeal

Next week, the National Park Service turns 96, and parks throughout the country will be hosting celebratory festivities.

You may remember my article from last fall on the National Park Service's push to expand education offerings, particularly in STEM, for students, through real and virtual field trips, teacher professional development, and increased partnerships with organizations like NatureBridge, which I visited for the story. An outdoor science program located in Olympic, Golden Gate, Yosemite, the Santa Monica Mountains, and Channel Islands National Parks, NatureBridge teaches hands-on science in some of the country's most beautiful spaces.

From recent news, it seems like these efforts are growing, as outdoor environments are increasingly being seen as ripe places for teaching, and community partners in particular, are helping facilitate this learning.

In New Hampshire, "nature preschools," which have children spend their entire classroom experience outside the classroom, have taken hold. Originating in Scandinavia, the schools teach youngsters preschool curriculum though nature. According to advocates, the experiences improve pupils' concentration, motor function, and problem-solving skills at an age when "environment" is critical.

According to the article, the concept has had appeal elsewhere in New England and even inspired Antioch University New England in Keene, N.H., to develop a "nature preschool education" as a major.

In Oklahoma, the Wildlife Department has partnered with schools to provide classes that teach skills like archery, fish identification, and field conservation, believed to be important not just for environmental awareness, but for survival and as a way of life. Around 150 schools in the state will offer fishing classes this fall through the partnership; 350 schools offer archery.

And in Texas, a collaborative of government agencies and organizations like the Environmental Protection Agency and the Gulf of Mexico Foundation have partnered with schools around the Gulf of Mexico, both on the Texas and Mexico sides, to provide "offshore classrooms" that teach students about their local coastal ecosystem. Eventually, the environmental education program may expand to the nearby Gulf states of Louisiana, Florida, and Alabama, the article reports.

The National Park Service itself even has a Teacher to Ranger to Teacher program, which takes teachers from Title I schools into the parks during the summer to work as rangers. When they return to schools in the fall, the teachers take "the parks into the classrooms," using curriculum materials and lessons they learned over the summer. There's a description of some teacher rangers in action this summer in Great Smoky Mountains National Park here.

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