What exactly is a ‘living schoolyard?’ Designed as outdoor learning environments at Portland Public Schools, the city’s “Living Schoolyards” program offers a new way to learn, inviting students to digest their curriculum through real experiences, bridging opportunity gaps and making outdoor space accessible to all students.
According to Brooke Teller, a science, technology, engineering and math coordinator for Portland Public Schools, the idea of ‘garden programs’ — meaning planting and harvesting on school grounds — is just one small piece of the entire puzzle. The real aim is improving students’ “environmental literacy,” their understanding and appreciation of the nature around them.
“I think people just call it a garden program, [but] this is much bigger than that,” Teller said. “Our vision for what this is going to be for our students on their campuses is more than just the garden.”
The program took shape in 2020 as a response to the pandemic as a safer way to get students back to school. For Teller, who at the time worked as the interim outdoor learning coordinator, it became really exciting to look at school as an adaptable setting with easy transitions between indoor and outdoor learning.
The concept isn’t exclusive to Portland, but the city’s school district is distinct in how intertwined with curriculum its Living Schoolyards program has become.
According to Katherine West, the district’s Outdoor and Experiential Learning Coordinator, that integration “changes the whole game.”
“There are garden programs all over the country in public schools, but it has taken some work to get the focus of environmental literacy into the public school education with an understanding of the severe environmental degradation our students will be facing,” West said.
One example was this year’s trip to the Presumpscot River, which included all 500 of the district’s third graders. As part of the Wabanaki Studies curriculum, students learned the history of the Presumpscot, with exercises designed to teach what it was like to live off the river. They got to observe its ecosystem firsthand.
Outdoor learning programs aren’t commonly featured in public education. Often, they’re limited to private schools and to students whose families can afford to go. PPS has been implementing the Living Schoolyards program through an equity lens to ensure that those outdoor experiences are available to all students.
“All of our students don’t have access to those [outdoor] opportunities in the summertime,” Teller said. “It’s important for us as school districts to figure out — how can we provide that as part of the students’ school day?”
Adam Burk, a former member of the Portland Board of Education and a senior program director for the Peter Alfond Foundation, was and still is an advocate for outdoor and experiential learning.
Generally, white middle- and upper-class families have the best access to nature near their homes as well, Burk said, while BIPOC families have less. That fact was highlighted by the pandemic, during which it became evident “particularly in communities of color and low-income communities, families have too few safe, close-to-home parks and coastlines where they are able to get outside,” as noted by the Center for American Progress.
It may also mean more opportunities for students to build upon their learning, West said, noting feedback from English-as-a-new-language teachers in Portland on the benefits of outdoor learning already.
“Oftentimes, students who aren’t leaders inside are leaders outside,” West said.