How this elementary school is breaking new ground with outdoor learning

Bear Tavern Elementary School’s extensive outdoor learning spaces are one of the main reasons Christopher Turnbull was named a visionary principal of the year by the New Jersey Principals and Supervisors Association.

The Philadelphia-area school began mapping out and building gardens, meadows, ponds and outside classrooms about five years ago. The project began when Bear Tavern’s educators began looking for ways to put the excess land around the building to better use. The new space took shape thanks to a combination of imaginative teachers, grant funds, assistance from nonprofits, and donations of time and resources from local landscaper companies, says Turnbull, whose elementary is part of New Jersey’s Hopewell Valley School District.

The work has strengthened the bonds between the school and the community while the spaces themselves became an invaluable asset as students returned to in-person learning in the 2021-22 school year.

“We had a lot of areas where kids could be outside—and not just outside, but forming authentic and meaningful connections,” Turnbull says. “Our kids have access to opportunities outside the traditional book-and-computer ways of learning.”

Outdoor learning: A student explores a pond at one of Bear Tavern Elementary School's outdoor learning spaces.
A student explores a pond at one of Bear Tavern Elementary School’s outdoor learning spaces.

Students have also helped build a boardwalk through a wetlands area and created a nature trail and the requisite signage.

The evolution of the school’s morning announcements during the pandemic is the second achievement that earned Turnbull the visionary principal award, he says. He shifted the traditional morning rundown of bulletins to a more fun and engaging lineup that now includes:

  • Mindfulness Mondays
  • Guest hosts on “Takeover Tuesday”
  • “We Dance Wednesdays”
  • Environmental messages on Thursdays
  • Friendship Friday (which contains a weekly joke)
  • Cultural celebrations

When the school was on an alternating schedule during COVID, Turnbull not only delivered the morning announcement over school loudspeakers but also emailed the video out to families at home.

During the pandemic, the school also chose a new theme, “Feeding Hope.” The phrase originated when a staff member asked in a Zoom meeting if anyone was feeding the large turtle—whose name is Hope—that lives in an aquarium in the building’s lobby. “I’m confident kids are going to learn and be OK in that sense,” Turnbull says. “We have to remember that they spent six months to a year at home and work hard on teaching those the social-emotional skills that were turned upside down.”

Key to these efforts will be following a growth mindset to view all students as more elastic in their abilities to learn. Educators also will use STEM and other subjects to show students how they can contribute to their communities. “Even as 5-, 6-, 7- or 8-year-olds, they can find solutions and make an impact,” Turnbull says. “When you create student agency and the belief they can make a difference, you’re operating on an entirely different plane.”

More from DA: 6 key ingredients to creating an outdoor classroom

Matt Zalaznick
Matt Zalaznick
Matt Zalaznick is a life-long journalist. Prior to writing for District Administration he worked in daily news all over the country, from the NYC suburbs to the Rocky Mountains, Silicon Valley and the U.S. Virgin Islands. He's also in a band.

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