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School district works with Garvan Gardens to bring class outdoors

"This provides a chance to get away from the screen, to enjoy nature, and do the things that children need to do."

HOT SPRINGS, Ark. — As school districts face the challenges of safe instruction amid the pandemic, technology is enabling instruction. At the same time, districts are exploring taking class outside to help with social distancing.

Lakeside School District in Hot Springs is taking advantage of nearby Garvan Woodland Gardens to teach kids in one of the prettiest outdoor classrooms around.

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"This is a time when we're able to get away from those screens, enjoy nature, and just explore the outdoors," said Courtney Eubanks, the special services administrator for Lakeside's five schools.

The district and the arboretum started thinking about a program last year, with naturalists going to the campus to teach classes. When the pandemic hit, administrators realized they could take the idea to the backyard.

"We were working with the E-students to develop nature-based play spaces for the primary and intermediate schools," said Becca Ohman, the garden director. "Once the pandemic hit, that evolved."

Since school began August 26, groups of special education students from Pre-K through 4th grade have taken a bus to the garden to spend the morning.

"It has been amazing and each day we've grown," Eubanks said, adding that certain children receiving special services from older grade levels would be joining them this week. "Our students have been able to enjoy pieces of nature that they wouldn't when they're inside the classroom."

Eubanks says there are set aside outdoor learning spaces. One group went on a scavenger hunt, looking for animal tracks and certain colored flowers. Another split off to dining tables to work on math surrounded by lush bushes. They all came together for a "brain break," complete with dancing and counting by 5's and 10's to 100.

The idea is a pilot program, for now, but since the gardens are an extension of the University of Arkansas, there is a desire to expand the concept.

"There's a lot of opportunity to develop this as a prototype, and then to work with the city and other administrations and municipalities," Ohman said.

Not everyone has a place like Garvan Gardens close by, but Ohman says a pretty park in just about any city could be suitable. They see the idea of the outdoor classroom giving everyone a new view on how to go to school even after the pandemic passes.

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"So often, our kids are on the computer," Eubanks said. "This provides a chance to get away from the screen, to enjoy nature, and do the things that children need to do."

"A place like this is a great way for them to test their limits and to soak up all the greenery and the dirt and the water and the sunshine that they can," Ohman said.