How one teacher transformed her school’s outdoor space into classrooms fit for hands-on learning

  • Jodi Sardanis, a special-education teacher at Northvale Public School in New Jersey, spent two and a half weeks this summer building outdoor classrooms for her school.
  • Teachers can use the space to instruct, and students have the opportunity to take off their masks and enjoy the fresh air.
  • Sardanis has built other outdoor spaces for the school, including a vegetable garden and a sustainable garden. 
  • Outdoor classrooms have quickly become a popular strategy for schools hoping to prevent the spread of the coronavirus. 
  • Sign up for our new parenting newsletter Insider Parenting here.

Jodi Sardanis never thought she'd miss smiles from her students — they were always a given.

While the Northvale Public School special-education teacher might be making her students smile, that doesn't mean she gets to witness them. As schools across the country reopen for in-person learning, many are requiring students to wear masks all day, leaving smiles covered and voices muffled. 

If it wasn't for the outdoor classrooms Sardanis built for her New Jersey school this summer, she joked that she wouldn't even be able to identify her new students. 

"Just being able to see the kids laugh, to see a smile on their face, to let them just take a deep breath, and express themselves — that's huge," she told Insider. "It's a big relief for me to see that."

Mulch pathways lead to two outdoor classrooms. Bright-red sails create canopies and 90 tree stumps fill the school's grassy area. Of course, plenty of puns are involved. 

Stumps have been scribbled with tree facts and conversational questions like "Wood you believe?" or "Stumped?"

The 52-year-old teacher spent two and a half weeks this summer constructing outdoor classrooms for her public school to share. Teachers can sign up for the spaces in the morning, and they also have access to four courtyards on the school's land. 

Over the past four years, Sardanis has transformed the schools courtyard areas.
Jodi Sardanis/Northvale Public School

Northvale's outdoor areas have been years in the making

Even before the pandemic, Sardanis said her focus was on getting kids outside. 

For the past four years, Sardanis has spent summers transforming the school's four courtyards. Each summer she picks a new space and a new theme. 

The school now has an edible garden filled with herbs and vegetable plants, a discovery garden complete with a pond, a native garden, and a sustainable garden with solar panels. 

This summer, Sardanis' focus was on creating outdoor classrooms.

"It's not an easy thing to get people to realize that kids can learn just as much out there as they can inside," she said. "So the pandemic actually worked in my favor in that regard."

By that, Sardanis is referencing the recent uptick in a push for outdoor schooling. Schools across the country have quickly built outdoor areas for learning because experts believe that the risk of contracting COVID-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus, is lower outdoors than indoors. 

For example, the country's largest district, New York City, recently pushed class outside. Private schools in places like Rhode Island and Vermont have seen an uptick in enrollment and point to things like outdoor learning for the cause.

Sardanis also pointed to other benefits of outdoor learning. She explained that nature offers a hands-on approach to learning and provides real-world examples of concepts often taught using textbooks. 

The benefits were clear, so Sardanis and her community got to work on building the space. 

The discovery garden has a pond full of fish.
Jodi Sardanis/Northvale Public School

The community came together to help create the space

A local electric provider, Orange & Rockland, has awarded Northvale a $1,000 grant for the last few years. This year, Sardanis used the money to build the classrooms. She estimates she spent about $500 of her own money to purchase additional supplies, including the stakes and canopies. 

"Now, it's turning into a whole collaborative effort," she said.

The tree stumps were donated, and a few community members helped Sardanis build the canopies. Teachers have helped paint the stumps, and students have helped plant gardens.

Sardanis said she's grateful for her community. She urged teachers to look for grants and ask surrounding businesses to volunteer their time and money. She also advised teachers to have a comprehensive plan before approaching administration with the idea. 

The students sit on every other log during class.
Jodi Sardanis/Northvale Public School

The students and teachers have loved the sunshine

Sardanis said students are "ecstatic" about the space and the chance to breathe fresh air. She hopes with the right winter clothing, students and teachers will use the space year-round.

"It's a rough time for everybody," Sardanis said, adding that it's a huge relief "that the kids can take their masks off, see each other, just sit outside, read, and talk."

If you're a teacher, student, or parent who wants to share their story on what it's like to go back to school right now, get in touch at mhumphries@insider.com.

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