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Blog At the Museum

STEP Outside at the Museum

A girl building a fort with a piece of wood

Think for a moment about how you feel when you are in nature. Close your eyes to connect to the smells you may notice and the feelings that may be present. Does it bring you joy? Peace? Relaxation?

Why would our students, who spend about 6.5 hours a day in school, feel any different? Why is recess such a popular time of enjoyment for so many students? The short answer is it reconnects them to the natural world in structured and unstructured ways. It becomes a meaningful self-created journey for them. So, at the Museum, we asked ourselves: How could we replicate this feeling, this journey to improve learning outcomes? We suggested that teachers might have a pretty good idea. So, we asked!

With funding from an Institute of Museum and Library Services (IMLS) grant, we aimed to create a new type of engagement with schools. This program, called Student Teacher Engagement Outside (STEP Outside), asks teachers to identify challenges to teaching and learning in an outdoor setting. Through co-creation, we have listened to and learned from various experiences with local teachers. Our initial goal for this project was to work with 20 teachers from Durham Public schools, listen to their challenges and hopes while building a curriculum that would best address these, lead an outdoor lesson for their students, and provide additional coaching as needed. In addition, we created an outdoor learning kit to supply each participating teacher with tools for the classroom to continue this work.

We believe that humans are inherently connected to nature. That connection leads to better mental health, stronger engagement, and more concrete learning outcomes. We experienced all this as true during our work with Glenn Elementary and Fayetteville Street Elementary Schools.

Teachers continuously told us that this program shifted how they thought about outdoor learning. “Engaging lessons. I realized the kids could easily relate to concepts in science with problem solving and engagement built into the catapult lesson,” said one teacher. “Great support to help teachers experience the success of outdoor learning,” said another.

Durham Public Schools has emphasized outdoor learning with funding for different schools through projects that vary, depending on each school’s needs. As a result, some schools have received outdoor learning spaces, some got tools for students to use outside, and some schools have a mixture of both. We were excited to help fill these gaps at Glenn and Fayetteville Street!

We would be remiss if we did not address student outcomes. Learning was observable and inspiring. Students engaged in various lessons based on their specific classroom needs. Some built catapults, others pollinator seed “bombs.” Some observed the clouds and practiced mindfulness, while others took on the challenge of a nature scavenger hunt. Whatever the activity, kids shared their connections, failures, and triumphs together and provided exceptional feedback in real-time to both their teachers and museum educators.

One kid asked if we would be able to learn outside every day, to which the teacher replied, “after this, we are a lot closer to that.”