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What If More Classrooms Were Outside?

The People's Tribune via Flickr

The New Mexico Senate last week passed Memorial 1, hoping to bring more children outdoors to learn. Eileen Everett from Environmental Education of New Mexico said their many partnerships, including with UNM Law School’sWild Friends helped shape the legislation to bring kids’ learning out from the indoor classroom.

EILEEN EVERETT: Last fall, when the students at Wild Friends selected what they really wanted to focus on this year, they picked outdoor classrooms, which seems just so timely and relevant given COVID-19 right now. Senate Memorial 1 really has two main things that it's asking for. One, for the governor to declare an Outdoor Learning Day for New Mexico, which we hope will happen this fall, the fall of 2021. And the other big ask is to create an interagency task force, which would include state agencies like the Public Education Department, State Parks, our Outdoor Recreation Division and others, to really engage in dialogue around what are additional resources and support that we can point school districts to to build more outdoor classrooms and learning spaces.

KUNM: Outdoor learning and learning outdoors, and environmental learning, they're not all the same thing, right?

EVERETT: So we define outdoor learning as engaging in learning that is including the environment that is surrounding us. So for example, if we are really focused on math, can we go out and use angles to measure the height of a tree? So that's actually engaging with our environment in the learning. Learning outdoors, is simply moving the class outside. In a literature class, responding to some readings that students have done that might not be relevant to the environment that they're sitting in in that moment, but it's actually just being in the outdoors and breathing the fresh air. Both of those are really valuable. And also environmental learning really has that focus on how do we better understand the environment that we're engaging in. The air, the water, the other biotic, the living things that are out in the environment, ecosystems, and humans being part of those ecosystems as well.

KUNM: COVID has forced so many children inside and away from their social school interactions, outdoor learning seems like it could offer an alternative. Tell us a little bit about the report "Every Kid, Every Day, Every Way," and the strategy for outdoor and environmental learning.

EVERETT: "Every Kid, Every Day, Every Way" – it's a multi-year shared vision and strategy to support daily equitable access to the outdoors and environment for all new mexico kids. Having kids in the outdoors and engaged in outdoor learning, you hit the nail on the head that it provides so many benefits and values to supporting our kids. Not just gains and academic knowledge, but supporting social and emotional health, helping with increasing attention spans for kids, and really being a place that can be responsive to many different learning abilities that are reflected in our student population. And I would say that COVID-19 has really just elevated people's awareness around the benefits of being in the outdoors, and not just for kids but really for all of us.

KUNM: How would teachers who are already kind of struggling with new methods of teaching be included?

EVERETT: Our conversations talking with educators and classroom teachers around the state is, how do we use outdoor learningto actually help support teachers, to enhance what students already need to learn through things like standards? And how do we actually ensure equitable access to the outdoors and really emphasizing those daily experiences for all of our kids?

KUNM: Right, I think the reality is that the landscape is just not equitable.

EVERETT: Yeah. This wasn't us as an organization sitting in isolation coming up with these ideas and solutions. But really going out to the community, educators, teachers, youth-led organizations, any community members that were interested in engaging with us, coming together over three years to have deep dialogue. To really explore what are the solutions and ideas that we can put forward, that will be equitable and responsive and reflective along with being respectful of local communities and how that can look so different across our state.



On March 11th, Environmental Education of New Mexico is hosting a virtual meetingwith Wild Friends reps to discuss Senate Memorial 1, their report "Every Kid, Every Day, Every Way," and to listen to community members talk about their outdoor education wishes.

Kaveh Mowahed is a reporter with KUNM who follows government, public health and housing. Send story ideas to kaveh@kunm.org.