Good Idea Showcase


Sharing What's Happening in the Trotter School Outdoor Classroom

On a warm, sunny April day, the Boston Schoolyard Initiative visited the Trotter Elementary School in Dorchester to speak to outdoor classroom volunteer Mary Smoyer about her innovative ways of keeping the Trotter community informed about what is going on outdoors.

Although she retired from teaching several years ago, Mary, a self-described gardening enthusiast, still comes to the Trotter a few times a week to check on, maintain, and plant in the school's outdoor classroom.  She has had the opportunity to see students and teachers interact with the space since its development ten years ago.

By now, Mary knows the outdoor classroom extremely well and is more than happy to share her knowledge with students and her peers.  She regularly updates a colorful bulletin board inside the school, incorporating leaves and plants from the outdoor classroom, related clippings from local newspapers, and various children's books about gardening.  The outdoor classroom bulletin board is eye-catching, informative, and interactive, to excite students about going outdoors.

Mary also compiles a newsletter every few weeks, which she sends out to teachers via email.  Her goal with the newsletter is to offer teachers information about what they are seeing when they take their students outdoors and to offer tips and advice for productive use of the space.  Alma Wright, another teacher at the Trotter who has also long been involved with the outdoor classroom, told us that the newsletters are great resources for educators, particularly as they are site-specific and timely- for example, they include photographs of new plants as they emerge along with facts about the plants that can be shared with students.

By using these simple means to communicate information to the Trotter community, Mary enhances the experience of both teachers and students when interacting with the outdoor classroom.  She is inspired to continue her work every time she sees the students exploring in the space, remarking that when students are outdoors they are curious and engaged, and never bored.  During our conversation a kindergarten science class came out to examine flowers through magnifying glasses.  Their enthusiasm and excitement for learning was contagious as they moved from flower to flower, observing and describing what they saw.

Mary's bulletin board and periodic e-newsletters demonstrate how having one person in charge of informing the school community about what is going on in the outdoor classroom can benefit everyone.  Further, she says that communicating information can be done even more easily with simple websites, which she plans on utilizing in the near future.

 Collaborative Outdoor Teaching Brings Health and Wellness to the Russell School

The Boston Schoolyard Initiative recently visited Russell Elementary School to speak to physical education instructor Elizabeth Reynolds Lupo and science teacher Holly Rosa about how they’ve been inspired by the outdoor classroom (and by each other!) in their unique co-teaching classes.

Several times a week the two teachers instruct classes together, creatively melding science concepts with physical education activities. This collaborative teaching opportunity, they say, has allowed them to enhance the learning experience of their students and to come up with new and fresh ideas. For them, a big part of the success of these co-teaching classes is being able to take their students to the outdoor classroom.

On the day of our visit, Reynolds Lupo and Rosa are outside with their kindergarten special education and ESL class. The topic of the class is shapes and the students begin by using their bodies to make squares, triangles, and ovals. The teachers then hand out buckets labeled with different shapes and bring their students into the outdoor classroom to collect and identify objects by their shape, reinforcing the same concept in a different way. The students are excited and engaged, and diligently investigate the outdoor classroom to find objects to place in the buckets. By twisting into shapes and moving around the OC, students get meaningful physical activity while also engaging in academics.

For Reynolds Lupo, the best part of the outdoor classroom is its adaptability. In an urban public school setting, implementing a physical education curriculum can be challenging; the Russell’s outdoor classroom offers her a space that can be used for different types of activities, while allowing students to connect with nature at the same time. She hopes that their experience outdoors will instill a sense of lifelong fitness and wellbeing in her students.

Rosa enjoys coming up with creative ways to incorporate the outdoor classroom into her science classes. She has noticed how her students, both younger and older, are more engaged and actually learn faster as a result of learning outdoors. They notice when natural changes occur, are more aware of the environment around them, and are positively affected by the sensory exposure of the outdoor classroom.

In learning from their collaborative teaching methods and from the outdoor classroom, their advice to other teachers is to be creative with their curriculum and to make the time to go outdoors, as children will benefit in the long run. They also add that finding another teacher to bounce ideas off of is both enjoyable and extremely helpful for fostering creativity and innovation in the classroom and in the schoolyard. 



Lai Lai Sheung, a teacher at the Josiah Quincy Elementary School, describes how she leverages partnerships and resources to help their rooftop garden flourish:

For six years, the Quincy School has partnered with the nearby Tufts University Friedman School of Nutrition. Tufts underwrites a grant to bring all or our third graders to Drumlin Farm to start off the school year. During the fall, a team of graduate students volunteer to teach three garden-related lessons to about 120 third graders. In the spring, another team of Tufts students teach an additional three lessons. The topics are decomposition, plant needs, parts of a plant, parts of a flower, planting vegetables from seed, and the food web.

Three years ago Maureen Beufeit, a Tufts Nutrition School graduate student, organized a one-time fall clean up event. Two years ago, I organized a perennials transplanting event and had 80 volunteers come on one Saturday to help with mural-painting, composting, transplanting, and building benches.

Last year Laura Held was our Tufts liaison. The Tufts students planted one of a pair of heirloom apple trees, donated by the Boston Tree Party, at the garden next to the nutrition center. Laura was instrumental in soliciting the Quincy School as the partner site for the second tree in order for them to cross-pollinate. Laura, a few Quincy kids, and I planted the tree in November, 2011.

We have received numerous grants over the 15 years of the garden's history. The initial start-up grant was a mini grant from Agriculture in the Classroom. Then I applied for many Boston Public Schools Impact II community service learning grants to supports the garden. In addition, we applied for a grant from the Boston Schoolyard Initiative. Last, Kirk Meyer (the former director of BSI) helped us secure a grant to purchase 54 roof trays from Plants Across Communities, and did a raffle fundraiser on behalf of the Quincy at the 2006 Greening of the City convention in Boston. In 2010, we received a grant from the Boston Public Schools Environmental School Project to purchase a compost bin, paint for the mural, and materials for the benches.

Harvesting the fruits (strawberries and blueberries) and vegetables (sugar snap peas) is my favorite thing about taking the kids to the school garden. To see all the hard work we put in during the school year coming to fruition is gratifying. At the end of the year, seeing young gardeners volunteering their time to weed, water, and compost with minimal help also makes everything worthwhile.


Outdoor Classroom maintenance at the Patrick Lyndon School

Outdoor classrooms are dynamic spaces that require care and attention. In addition to learning about science and environmental issues, the outdoor classroom provides excellent opportunities for social interactions for students as well as community building for the school. At the Patrick Lyndon School, K-5 science teacher, Judy McClure, and parent, Celena Illuzzi, organized two outdoor classroom clean-up events this year. Their goal was to create an event that was educational, enhanced the school climate, and was successful in cleaning up an important space to the school.

To accomplish their goal, the pair reached out to key resources in the community. An email contact group was created that consisted of parent volunteers who had expressed interest in helping out in the past. An additional newsletter was circulated to the families of students to inform them about the outdoor classroom and request help for upcoming events or donations. Finally, an outdoor classroom open house was held during the math and literacy night at the Lyndon that provided information about the clean up.

In addition to parent volunteers, a mix of students at the Lyndon School was chosen to help with the clean-up. Twenty-five students total participated in the spring clean-up: a 6th grade class, a combination of a 4th and 5th grade class and three students from the other 5th grade classes. By mixing up the different grades, students have a chance to interact with other age groups that might not ordinarily be in contact during regular school hours.

The outdoor classroom was then observed by McClure and Illuzzi who found that the most important tasks were raking the leaves, clearing the paths, weeding, and picking up trash. They determined that the best approach would be to divide the classroom into distinct working areas and assign a small group of parents and students to each area. This plan would keep students focused and engaged in the work and make it easier for parents to monitor their group of students.

The final preplanning component was to consider what materials and tools were needed for the clean up: waste bags, rakes, gloves (in small sizes for students and bigger sizes for adults), shovels, small digging and raking tools, and trash bags. Parents interested in donating or helping were contacted and many agreed to provide a majority of the materials.

On the day of the event, the weather was very cooperative and both days brought warm sunshine and mild temperatures. More importantly, Neil McCarthy, BPS Landscape Management Consultant, met with McClure and Illuzzi before the clean up and walked around the outdoor classroom to point out plants that should be weeded, how to trim trees and shrubs, and how much leaf cover to leave on the ground. He also advised them on the health of all of the plants and what plants they could consider adding to the environment.

At both the fall and spring clean-ups, five parents volunteered and arrived fifteen minutes early for general instructions and to be shown the areas they would be responsible for. When the students arrived, parents were matched with a group of five students and a brief introduction was given to everyone on the correct use of tools and techniques involved with weeding and cleaning. After that, parents took their groups to their assigned spaces and everyone set to work.

Both the fall and spring clean ups were amazingly successful. During each event, over 20 bags of debris were raked, picked up, and weeded. There was plenty leftover for Lyndon’s leaf cage and for some light ground cover around the plants. One of the parent volunteers who lives next to the school graciously took all of the bags out of the outdoor classroom and left them to be picked up by the city’s recycling service.

Judy McClure and Celena Illuzzi have set a wonderful framework to involve teachers, parents and students in the care and maintenance of the outdoor classroom. According to McClure, “Our outdoor classroom is a phenomenal addition to our curriculum and learning environment. The clean up events are not only essential to the upkeep of the space; they are also an important venue for creating a sense of community and stewardship around this valuable resource.”

Otis Elementary School "Science of spring" Project

Now is a great time to start looking for Signs of Spring in your schoolyard.  According to Neil McCarthy, the BSI/BPS horticulturist, in March and April, you will start to see: Witch-hazel blooming yellow or orange; Cherry trees with pink blossoms; and Serviceberry buds beginning to swell and bloom white.

Last February, a 5th grade class from Otis Elementary taught by Mrs. Mullane and supported by Boston Schoolyard Initiative staff, Jack Sheridan, prepared for a routine investigation of their outdoor classroom. The observations made during this investigation were to be baseline data put toward a long-term study “The Science of Spring”, adapted by Sheridan from a free online web program called Journey North. Although part of his Science in the Schoolyard curriculum, even Sheridan was surprised by their discovery of blooming flowers in Otis’s outdoor classroom.

Mrs. Mullane’s students were first asked to record the signs of spring they already knew about as well as their predictions of the signs they should expect to see in the outdoor classroom. The class was divided into five smaller groups, and with their notebooks and clipboards, they went out to record their observations. Each group chose a section of bushes and trees to examine, paying close attention to the buds. They also measured the air temperature and ground temperature nine inches deep in the planting beds where the first grade class planted bulbs in the fall. As part of the ongoing study, students were asked to record any wildlife such as Cardinals, falcons, hawks, squirrels, raccoons and skunks they saw in the outdoor classroom or on their way to and from school.

Back in the classroom, the students drew pictures of their observations while it was still fresh in their minds as well as engaged in a discussion about their findings. An intriguing observation the students found was that the ground temperature was colder than the air temperature. By far the most exciting discovery was the budding of a particular bush in the outdoor classroom.

The class needed answers so following the investigation, Sheridan contacted Boston Schoolyard Horticultralist, Neil McCarthy, who informed the group that there are many types of plants that bloom in the winter. This discovery seemed to be Witch-hazel, probably the Arnold Promise Witch-hazel (Hamamelis 'Arnold Promise'). Mystery solved!


Steps for this spring

If you are curious about what is blooming in your outdoor classroom, snap some pictures and send them to BSI’s Science in the Schoolyard Coordinator, Jack Sheridan, for evaluation. Further, if you are interested in the “Science of Spring” long term study, e-mail Jack at


Everett Elementary School Field Guide Project

After the Everett Elementary School Outdoor Classroom opened in the Fall of 2009, principal Nicole Mack turned questions about plants in the Outdoor Classroom into a school-wide Field Guide Project. In the process, she enhanced teaching and learning and enthusiasm for use of the new outdoor classroom. The final product can be found at

Professional development from the Boston Schoolyard Initiative education program led to Everett teachers taking their students out to observe, draw and collect data about the plants and animals in their outdoor classroom and schoolyard. Of course the first question that comes up when teachers and students discover an organism is, "What is it?" So Mack decided to turn these observations into a Field Guide Project that would engage all of the classes at the school, capture all the hard work of the students and teachers, and help teachers and students become more familiar with the plants in their schoolyard.

Here's the basic outline of their plan: each teacher and their classroom selected a tree to observe. Each class recorded observations about their adopted tree and surrounding organisms in their field journals over the course of the year. By the end of the year each class, with the help of their teachers, consolidated the information collected in their field journals to make an on-line Everett Field Guide.

What does the future hold? The book is still to be completed, like a never ending story. This guide will become a chronicle of organisms discovered over time at the Everett School and can be passed down from one class to the next from year to year.

Are you interested in making a field guide for your school? Contact Jack Sheridan, BSI Science in the Schoolyard Manager at