Environmental education is an integral part of everyday life at Redtail Ridge Elementary School in Minnesota’s Prior Lake-Savage area school district. On any given day you could find: math students using trees to study circumference, students using their senses to reinforce a lesson on adjectives, kindergartners sorting man-made verses natural objects, writing nature poetry, and investigating positive and negative numbers by recording the daily temperature. Embedding environmental education into our daily routine is a reflection of the community that fills the building, viewing the outdoors as an extension of our classroom, and a constant effort to replace existing lessons with an environmental focus.
From a supportive administrator, to our diligent custodial staff, willing classroom teachers, and tireless support staff, we are all working towards our philosophy of using the environment to educate children. The willingness to help each other and draw on each other’s strengths is what makes us unique. At any time you might see a fifth grade classroom taking a kindergarten class snowshoeing and then the next day going again with a group of second graders.
Every school year starts with a lesson on the expectations of outdoor learning. As a staff we established building-wide rules for outdoor learning, which are posted at every exit to remind students of appropriate behavior. As a result, we have minimal behavior issues outdoors due to the frequency of getting outside, clear expectations, and students’ desire to be outside. The students understand that learning is not restricted to the classroom and the outdoors provides them with a hands-on, sensory, learning experience.
Teachers are forever worrying and working to make sure all the curriculum is covered. We realized that if we try to go outside on top of teaching the daily subjects we would never get it all in. We strive to replace elements of existing, required lessons with an active, outdoor, learning component. Through professional development our staff has marked lessons in teacher manuals where going outside is an option and enhances the lesson.
Our dedication to environmental concepts is validated by student academic progress and proficiencies on the Minnesota Comprehensive Assessments in Science. Over the past four years the Redtail Ridge fifth grade students have consistently performed above the state average. We believe that by taking classes outside for learning, it in turn increases their attention and focus upon returning to the classroom.
Overall, the staff and students at Redtail Ridge not only believe in the importance of strong environmental awareness and promoting stewardship, but also live it each and every day. This is evident from classroom experiments on the effects of pollution on plants, students following our waste dispersal program, a class sitting in the outdoor boulder garden recording observations in their science notebooks, student naturalists heading out to replenish bird feeders, and environmentally centered morning meetings.
We continue to challenge ourselves in the area of environmental education. This year we embarked on an edible school garden adventure and next year we are adding an outdoor-space specific to little learners.
Sara Aker is a 5th grade teacher and Susan Schnackenberg is a Kindergarten teacher at Redtail Ridge Elementary School in Minnesota’s Prior Lake-Savage Area School District.