Boston Leads the Way Outside

Erica Beck Spencer, FOSS Curriculum Specialist (and Former Boston Public School Science Teacher Leader), Lawrence Hall of Science
September 03, 2014 | FOSS Outdoors

Ladybug art

Top image: Russell Elementary School in Dorchester, outdoor classroom after renovation

Have you had the opportunity to look through a FOSS Third Edition Teacher Toolkit yet? If so, you may have seen the ladybug icon in the margin or language such as "use the outdoor learning door" or "grab the outdoor teaching supplies." If you dig a little deeper into the Teacher Resources component, you may have seen the Taking FOSS Outdoors chapter. FOSS has always gone to the schoolyard for certain modules. How could anyone possibly teach Air and Weather without going outside to feel the temperature, to fly a kite to observe the wind, or to make the anemometer work? But now, in the FOSS Third Edition, teachers are prompted to head to their outdoor gathering spot regularly. Each Third Edition module has students going to the schoolyard at least once, and most of them have students going outside once for each investigation. All of this work grew out of Boston. Let's travel back in time and see how FOSS was inspired to start taking children to the schoolyard on a regular basis.

In 1995, Mayor Thomas M. Menino deemed Boston schoolyards "a barren wasteland of cracked asphalt" and formed a task force to remedy the situation. He recommended a five-year initiative and formed a public-private partnership between a group of private funders—the Boston Schoolyard Funders Collaborative, the City of Boston, and the Boston Public Schools (BPS)—who together began the work of "transforming Boston's schoolyards into active centers for recreation, learning, and community use."

Eighteen years later, in 2013, the Boston Schoolyard Initiative (BSI) had completed a project on every feasible elementary and K–8 schoolyard throughout the city of Boston. Their work is the envy of other urban school districts across the country. Collectively, more than $20 million was invested into projects that were envisioned and accomplished with thoughtful participation of teams of parents, teachers, principals, students, neighbors, landscape architects, city and school officials, funders, and other partners committed to creating outdoor spaces to learn and connect to the natural world.

Mendell Elementary School in Roxbury, outdoor class room before renovation

Mendell Elementary School in Roxbury, outdoor class room before renovation

Mendell Elementary School in Roxbury, outdoor class room after renovation

Mendell Elementary School in Roxbury, outdoor class room after renovation

The idea of using schoolyards for learning was a goal of the task force from the beginning, but it took time to understand how to accomplish it. Within a few years it became clear that simply creating a green space was not enough to support teachers to teach outside, and that these spaces weren't really designed for teaching. In 2004, BSI began piloting a new concept of an urban outdoor classroom designed to more directly support outdoor teaching. The BSI education team engaged BPS teachers and leadership in the district's science and literacy departments to determine the approach that would best support the curricula that educators needed to teach. Although the schoolyard designs have evolved over the years and vary from site to site, many include natural habitats, weather stations (including thermometers and wind vanes) permanently installed on armature structures, along with installations rarely found in schoolyards, such as pulleys and a variety of metals for testing magnetic properties and conductivity. Fencing defines these areas, keeps plants safe from recess activity, and also provides the teacher with a sense of security while giving students the freedom to roam. All of the outdoor classrooms contain defined seating areas for one or two classes, but they also include some of the comforts of indoor classrooms, such as white boards and chalk boards. As a direct result of incorporating the urban outdoor classrooms into 32 schoolyards, more educators were taking students outside for learning on a regular basis.

BSI provided spaces conducive to outdoor learning but also worked closely with the BPS science and ELA departments, and with teacher leaders within those content areas, to develop techniques for outdoor teaching, as well as curriculum support materials. The University of Chicago report (see "New Study Finds Outdoor Science Lessons Benefit Students and Teachers" in this issue) demonstrates that the Science in the Schoolyard™ professional development impacted teachers' practice dramatically. More than 850 Boston educators have been trained to teach outside, and professional development tools were created to support them. For example, BPS teacher leaders were videotaped using effective outdoor teaching strategies and practices outside. The project also created Science in the Schoolyard guides to support each of the elementary science modules that BPS teaches. The guides determine when teachers should go outside in the flow of what they already need to teach and explain the activities. Essentially students apply the indoor concepts to another setting, the schoolyard, and involve real-world applications. The FOSS program has enthusiastically endorsed these guides, one for each of the 12 FOSS modules taught in Boston. The guides can be found on (under the Teaching Resources, Taking FOSS Outdoors section for Second Edition modules).

The Science in the Schoolyard two-day professional development workshops included information about how to manage a class of 25 students with one adult in an urban schoolyard. Teaching outside demands different teaching strategies to help students learn quickly that the outdoor area that they're normally encouraged to run and play in requires different behaviors when they go outside for science. Teachers appreciated the simple tried-and-true techniques to improve behavior such as going outside through a different door than the recess door. During each workshop teachers participated in a wide variety of outdoor activities that they could do with students. Modeled within each activity were behavior management strategies and simple tools that teachers could make or buy. Many teachers loved the simple satchels made out of zip bags and string for hands-free exploration. Others loved the cardboard-binderclip-clipboards with an extra-large rubber band at the base to keep papers from blowing around.

All of this work—the videos, the workshops, and the guides—inspired the FOSS development team to integrate outdoor investigations into the FOSS Third Edition. Now every Third Edition module has at least one outdoor part, and most modules contain one outdoor part per investigation. This means that the work started in Boston, by BSI in conjunction with BPS teachers, reaches far beyond the city limits. If FOSS Third Edition users teach our program the way we've designed it, students across the country will be going to the schoolyard for science a minimum of 9–14 times annually.

BSI forged a critical link between sometimes difficult to connect organizations. It was a vital partnership between education innovators, city government, and funders that lasted over 18 years. BSI garnered and nurtured the trust and buy-in of the leadership and educators of one of the largest school districts in the country. Mayor Menino's tenure loosely parallels the trajectory of this project, and he was there from concept to completion. The book, Learn, Play, Grow: The Boston Schoolyard Initiative Story, showcases some of the most important achievements of this project:

  • 88 schoolyard renovations
  • 32 outdoor classrooms constructed
  • 30,000 school children reached annually
  • 850 teachers engaged in professional development
  • 25 acres of asphalt greened
  • 100 garden beds created
  • 200 trees planted
  • 75 play structures installed
  • 130 acres reclaimed for learning and play

Most schoolyards across the country aren't as lovely as Boston's. Many are barren asphalt. And still, most FOSS outdoor activities can be done in all schoolyards even if they are primarily asphalt or monocultures of grass. Sometimes life can be found in the cracks of the asphalt or along the fences where weeds have hidden from the lawn mower. FOSS believes strongly that taking students outside, no matter what the schoolyard looks like, will impact students' science understanding and, more importantly, their well being. Of course, being in spaces designed to support outdoor learning will better benefit students, and BSI has many resources on the website to help improve outdoor spaces on small or large budgets.

If you have FOSS Third Edition using your schoolyard for learning will be easier. The outdoor parts are built into the program and the Taking FOSS Outdoors chapter is right in your teacher resources book. If you're a FOSS Second Edition user, you can use the 12 Science in the Schoolyard Guides to describe where to go outside within each of the 12 modules. The Taking FOSS Outdoors chapter is available to everyone on and describes how to manage space, time, materials, and students outdoors. Many of the techniques for improving behavior management came directly out of the experiences of BPS educators. One such guideline is, "students always carry a tool to the outdoor site," even when it would be easier for you to carry everything. This reminds students that they are heading out for science, not recess. Some very outdoorsy teachers have said that this one technique has made teaching and learning outside much more effective and enjoyable.

In December 2013, the Boston Schoolyard Initiative celebrated the accomplishment of having achieved its founding mission. As the Boston Schoolyard Funders Collaborative ceases their involvement, others are stepping up to carry on the program. John McDonough, Interim Superintendent of the Boston Public Schools, said the district is committed to continue support for outdoor education and recreation, including maintenance of schoolyards and professional development opportunities for teachers. "We are proud that Boston schoolyards have emerged as extensions of the school learning environment," said Mr. McDonough. Our teachers have embraced the innovative training and resources that enable them to bring the curriculum outdoors in ways that are meaningful to urban students." A Schoolyard Leadership Committee has been established bringing together representatives from both the academic and facilities departments in connection with Green Schools efforts in BPS, and Science in the Schoolyard professional development courses will continue to be taught by SSY teacher leaders through the Boston Science Department.

The roots of this program extend far beyond the city limits of Boston. The website will be maintained for years and has tremendous resources for schoolyard project development, teaching tools, and teaching support. Plus, now that the lessons learned from BSI are embedded in FOSS Third Edition, the ideals of the program can be carried on by individual teachers.

Otis Elementary School in Roxbury, outdoor class room before renovation

Otis Elementary School in East Boston before schoolyard renovation

Otis Elementary School in Roxbury, outdoor class room after renovation

Otis Elementary School in East Boston after schoolyard renovation

A major part of the success in Boston is because the BSI education team listened very carefully to teachers. They asked teachers what they had the time to do, what they already had to teach, what they needed to feel confident enough to take students outside, and what was needed in the physical space to motivate them to take kids out regularly. Boston listened to teachers and FOSS listened to Boston. In the fall of 2014, in select schools in Chicago Public Schools, in small cities like Portland, Maine, across many districts in eastern Iowa, in ten GEMS-Net districts in Rhode Island, and in many other pockets across the country, students will start going to the schoolyard on a regular basis as part of their FOSS experience.