Back to the Jan-Feb 2022 issue

Spring Grove Partnership Provides Outdoor Classrooms

By Deborah Lynn Blumberg

City of excellence awardIn 2020, as children across the country struggled with the COVID-19-induced shift to virtual learning, leaders and teachers in the Spring Grove Public Schools were trying to figure out how they could safely bring kids back to school in person the next fall.

At the same time, Spring Grove City Clerk-Administrator Julie Amundson was concerned about her granddaughter, a second grader in Arizona who was having a difficult time with her Zoom classes. “It was tears every day,” Amundson says.

Amundson resolved to bring her granddaughter to Spring Grove for the 2020-2021 school year to give her a better experience. Of course, she was also concerned about safety, so she talked to school leaders and learned they were thinking about an innovative solution.

Teacher Jill Bjerke enjoys bringing the classroom outside. (Photo by Charlene Corson Selbee)

“Some teachers said, ‘We really want outdoor classrooms,’” says Superintendent Rachel Udstuen. Teachers were intrigued by the Norwegian education model, which prioritizes outdoor learning and lessons in the forest. “We were kind of dreaming about this,” Udstuen says.

Ultimately, the city and school district worked together to make the outdoor classroom a reality and give the K-12 school district of 350 students a unique learning experience. Spring Grove (population 1,256) won a League of Minnesota Cities 2021 City of Excellence Award for its part in the initiative.

Making the dream a reality

Amundson, Udstuen, and teachers met for weeks to mull over how they could best bring students outdoors. “We were trying to respond to our families’ needs, and what would make them feel safe,” Udstuen says.

They zeroed in on the nearby, city-owned Trollskogen Park, an inviting space dense with mature trees and four shelters that had become run-down after years of neglect. The park is two blocks from the city’s school. The shelters were originally built decades ago as outdoor meeting spaces by community groups, including the Sons of Norway and the Lions Club.

Amundson and Udstuen saw great potential in the shelters. They thought they could be updated and repurposed into outdoor classrooms for Spring Grove students to use during the pandemic — and beyond.

The open-air classrooms would be an alternative to virtual classes, helping children who didn’t have internet access at home and those who sorely needed the social interaction of in-person learning.

Preparing the shelters

In July 2020, when Amundson took the shelters idea to the City Council, members were enthusiastic. Council members and then-Mayor Sarah Schroeder were eager to assist the city’s schools.

This and other shelters were converted into outdoor classrooms. (Photo courtesy City of Spring Grove)

At the time, Spring Grove’s current mayor, Scott Solberg, was on the City Council, was the council’s liaison to the Parks Department, and was a counselor in the Spring Grove schools. His wife teaches at the city’s elementary school.

“There’s a lot of community pride in our school,” Mayor Solberg says.

With the mayor and City Council on board, Amundson started soliciting bids from contractors to enclose the unwalled shelters and outfit them as working classrooms. “We knew we could turn them into awesome classrooms,” she says.

The structures needed a lot of work, including walls to keep out the elements, windows, electrical wiring, paint, and Wi-Fi, and the work had to happen fast. School was set to start less than two months later. At the time, it was a challenge to find contractors for most jobs, but local contractors felt invested in the project, and they jumped to help.

“The community cared enough that we had a contractor say yes and come on board right away,” says Solberg.

With the start of the school year creeping up, there wasn’t time to hire an architect. The Solbergs, Schroeder, and a handful of teachers with design expertise convened to talk design ideas and make sketches as they sat 10 feet apart. They presented ideas to the contractor, who tweaked them so they were feasible. The shelters now have half windows and doors that open up like barn doors.

By the start of the 2020-2021 school year, the shelter walls were up, the windows and doors were in place, and workers had dug a fiber line to make Wi-Fi possible. The city brought in port-a-potties and hand-washing stations to place nearby for students and teachers to use throughout the day. In total, the shelter renovations cost the city $45,265, including both supplies and labor.

“We were very happy with the finished product,” Solberg says.

The district decided to put its elementary school students — kindergarten through fourth grade — in the outdoor shelters in Trollskogen Park. Middle school and high school students learned mostly outdoors in another nearby park and also used picnic tables that were placed outside the school.

Meanwhile, carpenters still had a few finishing touches to put on the shelters in Trollskogen. They worked around classroom schedules, but left markings in the form of fractions on the walls. Teachers incorporated those figures into their daily lessons, while also bringing the forest into the classroom. “It’s a very exciting and enriching learning environment,” Udstuen says.

The benefits of learning outdoors

Forty-six students and three teachers ended up using three of the shelters daily from September on, while the fourth shelter was used on and off by other classes. Students had classes and lunch in the park every day, and lessons often included nature.

“It was amazing,” Udstuen says. “Our kids were outside for the majority of the year, and they had incredible ownership of these different spaces. They have such excitement and curiosity in the outdoors. It was so fun to see that learning.”

Each child “adopted” their own tree and sat with it during quiet reflection or reading time. “Some of the kids named trees,” says Spring Grove elementary school teacher Jill Bjerke. They remembered where their tree sat in the forest and noticed how it changed.

Educators found that when students are outside, they “are engaged, excited, and ready to learn.” (Photo by Charlene Corson Selbee)

For math lessons, teachers incorporated counting acorns and collecting leaves, and they did more “messy” projects, since cleanup was easier outside. Children paid attention to the noises of the outdoors, but the sounds didn’t distract them, Udstuen says. In fact, many were even more attentive outdoors than inside the school building.

“They could move around and be curious,” she says. “There was more freedom for exploration. Kids out in fresh air are engaged, excited, and ready to learn. It’s such a wonderful learning environment for them to be in.”

In addition, “it was a calming environment,” Amundson says.

Solberg says his wife loved teaching inside the structures. “It was a great chance to be able to get outside,” he says. “It was learning in a different way, and she was able to meet the academic standards differently.”

As the temperature dropped, some parents were concerned about the cold weather. Children, however, dressed in layers, including snow pants and winter jackets. Udstuen says kids often didn’t even realize it was cold outside. When it was truly frigid out, children spent some time inside the school building, but they still ventured outdoors to learn.

For both teachers and residents, the outdoor learning experiment because of COVID-19 represented a significant change in their outlook. “This idea that learning only happens in the classroom, that’s really shifted for our community,” Udstuen says.

The shelters project also helped to unite the community during the pandemic. Residents walking or running by the park would stop to observe the children learning. “They just loved seeing those outdoor classrooms,” says Udstuen.

Continued use of shelters

Now, the school is back to classes inside the school building, but teachers continue to use the shelters for lessons and special projects. Community members are taking advantage of the renovated spaces, too, using them for outdoor birthday, graduation, and celebration of life parties.

“The shelters benefited both the school and city, and the benefits are still there,” Solberg says. “They’re still being used. That was my secret hope, and it’s happening. You never know who’s going to be there when you drive by.”

For cities considering a similar project, Amundson says, don’t be afraid to try something new, and then be pleasantly surprised by the many benefits.

“It was a new learning experience for the students, as well as teachers and parents,” she says. “This type of back-to-nature learning environment, kids really thrive on it. It’s how our grandparents went to school.”

Deborah Lynn Blumberg is a freelance writer.