In a year filled with uncertainty and anxiety for students across the country, the students at James Faulkner Elementary School have found safety and solitude, not inside their small southern New Hampshire schoolhouse, but in the woods behind it.
As COVID-19 cases spiked across the country and school districts agonized over whether to send kids back to in-person learning, students and teachers in this picturesque New England town decided to move classes outdoors. Now, three months into the school year, there’s talk of making these newly constructed outdoor classrooms a permanent fixture for kids, pandemic or not.
“We’ve experienced this and seen that we can make it work,” explained elementary school teacher Jacquie Cornwell. “There’s been discussions about whether this is something we want to continue doing. It’s just been such a positive experience for our kids.”
Cornwell, 34, has been teaching for nearly a decade. Going into this school year, she was incredibly concerned about her own safety and the safety of her students. Stoddard is home to just over 1,200 people, and the small school building here doesn’t lend itself to much social distancing. So, as the school year began, students here started constructing two “base camps” in the woods behind the school. Each morning, students pack up their books, pencils and snacks and head outside.
They even petitioned the town of Alderman to use some of the land that isn’t technically on school property.
Now, dozens of kids spent three to four hours a day learning outside. On a recent afternoon this fall, Mother Nature had painted their classroom walls in vibrant orange hues, as the maple trees that surround the property here prepared to shed their leaves for the winter.
All of it has helped to foster a learning environment that Cornwell says has been free of stress and anxiety. Something hard to come by during a pandemic.
“I’ve noticed that on days when we are outside, negative behaviors really seem to much less than when we are indoors,” she said.
Looking around at her students scattered on small wooden benches around the woods, Cornwell can’t help but reflect on how surprised she’s been at how well this school year has turned out.
“It’s really turned something that could’ve made this year horrible, sitting in desks, facing forward, not playing with friends, into one of the best years I’ve had in my nine years of teaching,” she said.
The New Hampshire air is plentiful out here, which minimizes concerns about ventilation and COVID-19 lingering in the air. There hasn't been a single case of COVID-19 reported here this year. With the risk of spreading COVID lower outdoors, students can even take off their masks sometimes when having snacks or reading in socially-distanced groups.
It’s brought on a sense of normalcy for these students, something they’ve longed for since the spring.
“The woods have all kinds of sounds, the birds, the planes going by. It makes it feel normal,” said 10-year-old student Brie Bell.
Bell and her classmates have taken pride in this outdoor space they've built by hand. They've hung hammocks for reading time and even built a fire pit for the colder months. With coronavirus cases spiking across the country, students here seem genuinely invested in keeping this concept going as long as it means they get to continue in-person learning.
“I feel like they’re having these impactful experiences they’re going to carry with them for the rest of their lives,” Cornwell said.