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SPARKlight | Outdoor Learning Lifts Restrictions for DPS Students


Durham Public Schools and Bienenstock, which builds natural playgrounds, have produced a video called “Not All Classrooms Have Walls” featuring the district’s outdoor learning program. The film takes the viewer into the interactive, outdoor classrooms and provides an explanation of its components through the eyes of DPS teachers and administrators.


Every Durham public school now has an outdoor learning classroom, thanks to forward thinking and an appreciation for the environment and the role it plays in educating youth about its benefits, according to Fred Davis, DPS Senior Executive Director of Building Services. 


“This is not just a furniture application,” he said. “This is a mindset, a philosophy, and a standard that we’re incorporating, where we’re engaged and we invite people to step outside of the classroom. Oftentimes people say Durham is different and different can be looked at in various ways. But I think for me and for the administration here, we understand that it’s about the students.”


Erin Carroll, the district’s Outdoor Learning Advisor, assists schools with lesson plans, grants, and other resources. She says taking academics outdoors expands the classroom, giving students “teachable distractions.” She further explains that within the four walls of a brick-and-mortar school, certain behaviors are inappropriate.  But outdoors, an exclamation about a wandering animal, insect, or other sighting is perfectly fine. The teacher can then conduct a mini-lesson about the “distraction.”


Twenty-five year veteran DPS Teacher Stephen Mullaney said being outdoors makes him feel better. As an Outdoor Education Learning Coach, he works with teachers to take education beyond the walls of the brick-and-mortar classroom. An extensive traveler, Mullaney has voyaged to Nepal, Ecuador (where he worked with wilderness guides to start their own businesses with indigenous peoples), the Himalayas, and parts of Central and South America.  He also worked for the Los Angeles schools. Mullaney has written and taken photographs for surfing and skateboarding magazines featuring outdoor activities and sports; he’s also written for educational journals and blogs about outdoor education. Mullaney’s passion for outdoor learning was the impetus behind his work in getting the district’s Hub Farm started. Using one’s energy to commune with nature is an “amazing experience,” he said.


“In high school, my perspective was being told what to do without good reasons,” he said. “My personality, like some others, was ‘I can get good grades and buck the system.’ The next thing you know, the police are involved.  You can’t fight Mother Nature. She wins. Your energy is misplaced and you won’t come out of it successfully. I got involved with people who had healthy relationships with the outdoors, and it shifted my cognitive perspective on the world.”


Every Wednesday at Merrick-Moore Elementary School is Wilderness Wednesday. Specialists take grade levels outside and connect the curriculum. Schools work with the Eno River Association and State Park Rangers. Every other month, the school holds a week of “Teach It Outside.” Teachers sign up for different spaces outside where lessons like fire safety, phases of the moon, weather, and forces in motion are taught.


Dr. Linda Tugurian, Executive Director for Curriculum and Instruction, said outdoor academics literally break down barriers to learning. 


In the video, she says, “My wish would be that every student in Durham Public Schools would have that opportunity to learn a little bit about the world around them, in the world around them, and get to experience that. And for some students, that will be the magic spark that will propel their learning and propel their activism or propel what they care about in the future.”


See the video here.

Editor’s Note:

Durham Public Schools has also been featured on the Green Schoolyards America website for its outdoor learning advocacy in partnership with the BOLD Network (Building Outdoor Learning in Durham). Dan Schnitzer, Project Manager for Sustainability and Capital Improvements for Durham Public Schools, told Green Schoolyards America that “DPS has a variety of outdoor learning spaces, from shade structures with picnic tables, to numerous nature trails on campuses, to ponds, stump circles, and even our own farm (The Hub Farm). The spaces were used primarily by teachers who were predisposed to going outside. A lot of science teachers, some art teachers, and a variety of others who simply enjoy being outdoors and are comfortable taking kids outside. At one of our schools, they even have an outdoor learning specialist who teaches everything from knot-tying to tree identification, fire building, and more. We have also worked hard to develop The Hub Farm as a field trip site for all district students.” 

Read more about that here.