The Importance of the Outdoor Classroom

We impart a huge “thank you” and express our deepest gratitude to the FMS PTO, Park Landscaping, and all the families who participated in the 5K fundraiser in April 2014 that made the renovation of the outdoor classroom possible!

The Montessori outdoor classroom is an extension of the indoor classroom and offers students the opportunity to experience firsthand; the beauty, wonder and mystery of the natural world. At Foothills Montessori School, the outside classroom is available to each of the Primary children on a daily basis. During our work cycles, small groups of students from each of the four Primary classrooms rotate to spend time in the outside classroom. Many of the “jobs” set up outside offer the children the opportunity to delve deeper into the insect world, by using magnifying glasses to look closely at bugs, and then to look at books nearby that reference interesting features and facts about bugs. A brand new greenhouse will anchor the outside classroom experience by providing the children opportunities to work with soil and plants and immerse themselves in the growing cycles of flowers and vegetables.

The impact of an outdoor classroom on the children is both immediate and long term. During the work cycle it offers the students a chance to relax, to let go, be exposed to the fresh air, sunshine and the many birds and insects who visit the space. It also gives students from four different classes the opportunity to interact with each other as they explore the garden with hand held magnifying glasses, painting pictures using a standing easel, manipulating puzzles, manipulating blocks, and experimenting in the ever popular water table. All the while, grace and courtesy lessons are being directly applied to their interactions and the ever important lesson of sharing is always in play. Even the direction of leaving the outdoor classroom to return to their Primary classroom is a powerful lesson in compliance.

The long term impact of exposing our students to the wonder and mystery of nature is profound. We’ve seen over the past ten years a decrease in time children are spending outdoors and an increase of time children are entertaining themselves with technology and media. It is a shift from the spontaneity of making up games and “hanging out” outside with small groups of children to a more solitary and more predictable environment. Technology has its place and function in our children’s lives, but the creativity and variety of an outdoor experience cannot be replaced with a reality experienced in front of a screen.

Recent research has raised concerns about children’s lack of exposure to the natural world and the ramifications both to the individual child and to the collective society overall. “Lost Child in the Woods: Saving our Children from Nature Deficit Order” by Richard Louv, points out “that for a new generation, nature is more an abstraction than reality. Increasingly, nature is something to watch, to consume, to wear – to ignore.” Furthermore, Louv points out “as the young spend less and less of their lives in natural surroundings, their senses narrow physiologically and psychologically and this reduces the richness of human experience.”

At Foothills Montessori School, we are committed to creating an outdoor space infused with the beauty and variety of nature Our veteran teacher Ms. Val (Lead Teacher for the Outdoor Classroom) so aptly states, “As a teacher, I take my observations of learning from my students, as they explore the unpredictable and immensely, ever changing experience of the outdoor classroom. Together we embrace the elements and are inspired by nature and its ongoing life lessons it so generously imparts. It lifts my spirit to provide this opportunity for our students.” Richard Louv concurs with this sentiment as he says “spiritual life begins with a sense of wonder, and that one of the first windows to the wonder is the natural world.”


Physical Education Enhances Cognition

The Effects of Enhanced Physical Education on Academic Achievement

Schools around the country are reducing the amount of time devoted to PE. It is the predominate feeling among some administrators that physical education reduces the instruction time in core academic subjects. These administrators fail to see the connection between physical education and classroom learning. This month I decided to research this topic. Here are a few of the key findings:

Connection Between The Body and The Mind

Human and animal studies show brain areas involved in movement and learning are intimately connected, and physical activity could increase those neural connections (Uensen,1998; Shephard, 1997). Learning complex movement sequences stimulates the prefrontal cortex used in learning and problem solving, and this effect could improve learning. Neuroimaging data revealed changes in neural activity in the prefrontal cortex  corresponding to the benefit of exercise on executive function observed in the exercise groups.

A review of over a hundred studies concluded that physical activity is associated with selected advantages in cognitive function, specifically math, acuity and reaction time (Thomas, Landers, Salazar, & Etnier, 1994) .

Improving Grades

Statewide studies have found a positive relationship between FitnessGram (a fitness assessment and reporting program for youth) scores and performance on academic achievement tests. Another large and long-tern study was conducted in Trois Rivieres, in Quebec, Canada, beginning in the mid 1970s (Shephard,jeQuier, LaVallee, LeBarre, & Rajic, 1980; Shephard, LaVallee, VoIle, LaBarre, & Beaucage,1994; Shephard et al., 1984). Students in first through sixth grades received increased time for physical education and decreased time for other types of instruction. Improvements were reported, not only in fitness and psychomotor abilities, but in class grades also.

Improving Attention Span and Classroom Behavior

Physical activity might alter attention span through neurohormonal mechanisms, which could improve the child’s ability to focus in the classroom (Shephard, 1997). A summary of the fifty most rigorous studies exploring the relationship between indicators of physical activity and academic performance found 251 associations between physical activity and academic performance, representing measures of academic achievement, academic behavior, and cognitive skills and attitudes. Of all the associations examined, slightly more than half (50.5%) were positive, 48% were not significant, and only 1.5% were negative.


In a period when greater emphasis is being placed on preparing children to take standardized tests, these studies should give school administrators reasons to consider investing in quality physical education and vigorous activity programs, even at the expense of time spent in the classroom. Time devoted to physical activity at school  may actually improve academic performance.

The health benefits of physical activity are well-known. Therefore, the implementation of accessible, low-cost physical activity programs for youth should be pursued without delay.

These well-researched benefits are playing out everyday here at Foothills Montessori School both on the field and in the classroom. Our students are getting fit and staying healthy during PE. When they return to the classroom, the effects of exercise are enhancing the already incredible work our teachers are doing.

We love to PLAY!

Playing outside with friends is integral to every child’s development. It improves cognition, encourages mental and physical development, reduces stress, reinforces social bonds, enhances creativity and confidence … and of course, it’s just plain fun. The best memories from childhood are usually the ones involving interactive play with others in the great outdoors.

Richard Louv in his landmark book Last Child in the Woods discusses the fundamental need for children (and adults) to spend time outdoors. Instead of our weekly look inside a classroom, let’s join the children of E3 while they enjoy the interactive Science Playground, the open field and the Las Vegas winter sunshine just as children were meant to do.

And of course, nature can inspire great works of art. You are invited to visit the E3 classroom in person to view a gallery of artwork inspired by Georgia O’Keefe’s flower studies, incorporating watercolor, pencil, ink, tissue paper and collage pieces.

See many more pictures of E3 by visiting their classroom blog!

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