Most students are used to learning in the classroom, but at Harding University Partnership School in Santa Barbara, students can learn from their classroom, which is what happened when a group of preschoolers found a chrysalis in their outdoor classroom.
The students got to bring the chrysalis inside and watch the metamorphosis until they got to release the butterfly.
The outdoor classroom at Harding, at 1625 Robbins St. on the Westside, has planter boxes, paint stations, wooden blocks, books, a grassy knoll and musical instruments for students from preschool, kindergarten, and first and second grade to enjoy.
Harding’s outdoor classroom opened last spring after Principal Veronica Binkley and other staff members wrote a grant request to First 5 Santa Barbara County in 2021.
The grant has Harding’s outdoor classroom serve as a pilot program and, if successful, more elementary schools in the Santa Barbara Unified School District could get their own outdoor classrooms.
Nature Explore, a notional nonprofit organization that aims to make nature part of daily learning, was brought on as a consultant and assisted in the rendering and planning for the space.
Binkley said students are more calm in the outdoor classroom than they are on a typical playground.
The paint, blocks and xylophone allow the students to be more creative. Binkley said students are taking pride in what they’re creating.
“I think it’s bringing out the true child,” she said. “They feel like they can be themselves because there’s so much to do and so much to explore.”
Binkley said the space allows for kids to have more productive play instead of running around, chasing and screaming like they would on a traditional playground.
Erin Cavazos, a general education preschool teacher and site supervisor at Harding, said the outdoor classroom gives space for continued learning. As a preschool teacher, she is with her students three hours a day, and state law requires that at least one of those hours is spent outside.
For Cavazos, the space makes her day a little easier because she knows her preschoolers are learning while they play and she doesn’t have to worry about them tackling each other or falling off play equipment.
“When you let them loose with one play structure and grass, they almost don’t know what to do but tackle each other,” she said.
“Here, they really understand how the space works and they’re really good at traveling between the spaces. It’s just calmer and they have more knowledge of what to do.”
The classroom was recently named a certified Nature Explore Classroom, joining the ranks of 500 other schools in the country.
The outdoor classroom includes planters that have growing strawberries, flowers and other plants for students to water and watch grow.
Cavazos said the students really enjoy watering the plants, though lately their attention has gone to the toy dinosaurs and the paint easels that they recently got.
Along with other early education teachers, Cavazos got to participate in the design process for the outdoor classroom. Together the staff imagined what they would want the space to look like if they had no limits.
“To collaborate together across the grade levels and across departments was really exciting,” Cavazos said.
“We’re the youngest group in the district and all of a sudden had all this attention and were being asked what we needed, which was really exciting because we got what we needed.”
Binkley said kids haven’t had problems with distractions while in the space. In fact, they’ve taken students to the space when they’ve been losing focus inside their traditional classroom.
“All of the plants that we put in there were intentionally brought in to have some sort of sensory attraction,” she said. “They either smell good, you can eat them, you can touch them.”
Binkley said many of Harding’s students live in apartments or don’t live near any parks, limiting the amount of time they get to go outside.
“When you’re the most stressed you just go sit on the beach or you go out into the woods, you come down a notch,” Binkley said. “It’s just our human nature and kids need that.
“I really do think this is something that will benefit all children and teachers and parents because if kids are happy, everyone’s happy.”