A recent study by the Harvard Graduate School of Education reported, “COVID encouraged schools to take learning outside. There is overwhelming research that tells us to keep it there.”

 Highland School has been taking students outside for decades — from backpacking treks to team-building canoe trips to science projects on the Chesapeake Bay. So during the pandemic years, when trips off campus were curtailed, Highland teachers combined their training in Project Approach Learning with new initiatives in Outdoor Education. They mobilized to make outdoor learning on campus a central focus of the curriculum.

Then last summer, a Faculty Fellowship funded by Highland donors — combined with a huge team effort by teachers, parents and alumni — made possible significant upgrades to create a completely new Outdoor Classroom.

What started years ago with a pollinator garden, a chicken coop, and a tree planted in memory of Highland alum Finley Broaddus, is now a thriving outdoor education complex.

The giant storm that swept the county in June created multiple opportunities for the Outdoor Classroom. Highland parent and alum Erik Wachtmeister (’91) hauled a giant stump from his farm for a playground feature that doubles as a subject of study in decomposition and native habitats. He also used felled trees to make log seats of different heights for the worktable area.

Retired Science teacher Gary Hicklin built a “house” complete with a “kitchen” area out of locust wood from his farm. Now named “The Hicklin House”, it facilitates everything from 2-year-olds “cooking” to older children collaborating on group projects.

At the same time, the school won a grant from the PATH Foundation and the Mahendiran family that allowed Highland faculty to work with the Clifton Institute to develop “Habitats for Learning” – an outdoor education training program that will be shared with all Fauquier County teachers in grades 1-4.

 Also in partnership with the Clifton Institute, Highland students in grades 1 – 4 are doing research at the 900-acre field station on Blantyre Road to help the experts there understand more about native plants and insects in our area as they work to restore a prairie area.

 Back on campus, Highland students as young as 2 years old are making daily trips to their state-of-the-art outdoor learning center. Through developmentally-appropriate activities, every student in PK2 through 4th grade is using features of Highland’s Outdoor Classroom to learn everything from small motor skill development to how to map activity by insects, native plants, birds, and fungi.

Highland Librarian Jane Banse, who has spearheaded the outdoor learning program since its genesis years ago, says, “Our Outdoor Classroom is the perfect complement to our Project Approach Learning curriculum that is focused on the natural sciences. Our students are thriving as they discover the “food web” of fungi and soil, native plants, insects and amphibians, and birds, because they are questioning and learning for themselves in the very environment where it’s all taking place.”

The late Thomas Berry, the renowned cultural historian who sought a broader perspective on humanity’s relationship to the earth, once said, “Teaching children about the natural world should be treated as one of the most important events of their lives.”

Highland School’s teachers, their partnership with the Clifton Institute made possible by the generous PATH Foundation grant, and the donors and volunteers who built the new Outdoor Classroom, are accomplishing just that!

Highland School is a co-ed independent PK2-12 day school in Warrenton, Virginia.

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