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Teacher Spotlight: Nicole Klimek & Amy O'Donnell share the joys & benefits of outdoor learning.

Third grade teacher, Nicole Klimek, takes her students outside for a lesson in their Outdoor Learning Zone, designed in partnership with Thrive Outside.

With today’s focus on technology, screen time can feel unavoidable both at home and in school. Many teachers, however, are pushing back on this, working hard to balance time in front of tablets or laptops with time in nature.

At Thrive Outside we refer to these teachers as outdoor education ambassadors: not only are they helping students access the academic, social-emotional, and physical benefits of nature, but they are also showing other teachers how it can be done.

Thrive Outside’s biggest Outdoor Learning Zone project to date took place at the Melville Elementary School in Portsmouth, RI. When teacher Nicole Klimek takes her third-grade students into the “OLZ” she notices an important shift in herself and her students.

“It’s a wonderful space to help students get away from technology, get away from the enclosed classrooms and just be able to learn in an open natural environment.”

Klimek utilizes Melville’s OLZ for social/emotional, as well as academic, learning. She

observes students taking deep breaths, getting centered and becoming present.

“They take in learning while they’re out in nature. It helps to calm them down quite a bit.”

Nicole Klimek using the plants in the OLZ to teach a lesson.

Amy O’Donnell, current Mt. Hope High School, and former Kickemuit Middle School teacher, believes strongly in the importance of connecting education and nature. She had noticed that her students weren’t viewing themselves as a part of the natural world.

“They weren’t gaining an understanding of nature, and their place in it, at home or in school.” Her solution? Take them outside to experience what she calls “the joy of being able to understand our ecosystem and see how things fit together."

O’Donnell has noticed consistent results.

“Kids who in the classroom don’t take on leadership roles, might be hard to engage or have their head down become really excited to participate”. She has enjoyed seeing her students’ excitement when they noticed something in nature or figured out what she refers to as “a little ecological mystery."

Amy O'Donnell holds up the Concept Vision Design for the Kickemuit Middle School's proposed Outdoor Learning Zone designed by Thrive Outside. Amy spear-headed the project along with the KMS Sustainability Club students.

“Those are the things you can’t necessarily plan, but they are opportunities that present when you’re in a dynamic outdoor space. They are the richest part of the experience because they are driven by the students’ observations and their own questions,” O’Donnell emphasizes.

Improved focus, increased engagement, connectedness with nature, and mindfulness are things we hear repeatedly from teachers who regularly take their classes outside.

Thrive Outside will continue to develop and offer outdoor education professional development opportunities to Rhode Island teachers, empowering them to feel confident and comfortable taking their classes outside.

As Nicole Klimek explains, outdoor learning is more important than ever for the whole-body development of young students. “Nature allows their bodies and minds to expand and grow."

Reported by Tiffany Healey and Sheila Dobbyn

Tiffany is Thrive Outside's Development Consultant and Sheila is Thrive Outside's Outdoor Learning Professional Development Consultant


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