Detroit Waldorf School finishes outdoor school year

When Lailah Henderson left her classroom one ordinary day last spring, she didn’t know it was the last time she’d see her friends for months.

“It happened all of a sudden,” the Detroit Waldorf School fifth-grader said. “We actually had two days off, Thursday and Friday, for parent-teacher conferences. So there was already going to be a break. I didn’t get to see my friends on Thursday and Friday, and then COVID started. I didn’t like that at all.”

The Detroit Waldorf School, like many others, pivoted to online learning during the spring of 2020 in response to COVID-19. But, after a few months, teachers and parents decided there must be a better way. 

While other schools scrambled to develop online education options for the 2020-2021 school year, the private pre-K-8 school on Detroit’s east side moved forward with an in-person learning plan. But, there was a twist. 

The students would return to outdoor classrooms. 

Building community

The idea for outdoor classrooms gained steam in mid-June when some faculty members suggested it to the school’s parent-led site committee. During the next couple of weeks, they hashed out ideas together via Zoom.

By July, parent-architects Brian Rebain and Garrick Landsberg had created designs for the structures and site. The outdoor campus would feature 14 beautiful, durable cedar shelters designed to serve the school for years to come.

Photo courtesy Detroit Waldorf School.

With only seven weeks left until the start of school, the heat was on to complete the project.

Families and teachers were on-site almost daily, from early in the morning, working on the project late in the evening. They cleared brush, dug post holes, framed the structures. Some brought food and coffee. Others drove their pickup trucks to lumberyards throughout southeast Michigan, searching for materials amidst a pandemic-induced lumber shortage. Finally, in the second week of August, they found a supplier who could deliver the remainder of the wood they needed to the campus.

“At the end of some of those long days, it still felt like, I don’t know if we’re ever going to get done,” says fifth-grade teacher Justin Trombly, who had advocated for the outdoor classrooms. “But just a couple of days before school started, we put the last bit of a roof on, and we finished 14 of these 500-square-foot shelters. It was pretty amazing.”

Photo courtesy Detroit Waldorf School.

All of the labor was donated. A fundraising drive generated approximately $50,000 toward the $80,000 cost of project materials. The W.K. Kellogg Foundation of Grand Rapids provided a $15,000 grant. Dearborn-based apparel manufacturer Carhartt donated canvas siding to protect the children from winter winds. Butcher & Butcher Construction of Rochester provided a steep discount on roof shingling. The school covered the balance of costs from its general operating budget.

“I feel like people really want to help each other,” says Detroit Waldorf School kindergarten teacher Rachel White, who also advocated for the outdoor classrooms. “When we put this out to the community, people responded with such generosity of time, of equipment, of expertise. Whatever people were able to offer, they did. It brought us together in a whole new way.”

Adapting to the seasons

On the first day of school, there was a torrential rainstorm.

“That’s the hardest it rained all year, just pouring,” Trombly says. “We sat under this deck completely dry and just watching this rainstorm, and it was beautiful. 

“That’s happened so many times over the year with snowstorms and watching the wind hit the huge oak trees around our property and the leaves falling during the fall,” he says. “We’ve had these really awesome experiences of being in nature in the middle of Detroit. That wouldn’t have happened otherwise.”

Photo courtesy Detroit Waldorf School.

As fall turned to winter, the students adapted by bundling up. They brought sleeping bags and hand warmers and learned to regulate their body temperature. If it got so cold they couldn’t hold their spoons with their gloves off, they went inside for a snack. Except for a couple of frigid, snowy weeks, the class continued outside all year.

Trombly and White say the freedom of movement the outdoor classrooms provide offers many benefits.

“In early childhood, we’re really thinking about being active – climbing and balancing – and getting all of those things in place. Parents have said to me, ‘My child used to be so timid to climb something or to walk across something that was uneven, and now she goes to the park with her cousin, and she just runs across something,’ White says. 

White says it’s easier to manage conflicts outdoors than in a confined indoor space with limited toys. Instead, she can just take a child’s hand, go for a walk and talk about how they’re feeling.

Trombly says it also came in handy during journal-writing time.

“If we were in (an indoor) classroom, everybody just puts their head down into their journal,” Trombly says. “But, here, they take their little chairs, and they go off, and they sit under a tree. They go find a little spot that they really like.”

Lailah’s dad Neil Henderson says experiencing all of the seasons outdoors at the Detroit Waldorf School has inspired their family to spend more time outside no matter the weather. 

Photo courtesy Detroit Waldorf School.

“Lailah had only been ice skating once in her life, and now she knows how to skate,” Henderson says. “I don’t know if I’ve ever sat by as many campfires and things like that. We’re learning to have fun with it. I think just getting in the spirit of dealing with the outdoors and making a way that the kids can have some fun has spread through the whole family and her friends as well.”

‘Inside is boring’

The Detroit Waldorf School plans to use the outdoor classrooms even after the COVID-19 pandemic. The shelters will host plays, music festivals, and seasonal celebrations. Teachers will have the flexibility to conduct lessons outside. 

“Other schools that are interested don’t have to build 14 cedar structures,” White says. “Even just a single outdoor classroom can provide a place for an art class or storytime for kids or parents having coffee after drop-off. It can help build community.”

With almost an entire school year completed in her outdoor classroom, Lailah says she approves.

“I thought I would be like, ‘Well, when this is over, I just want to go back inside,” Lailah says. “But, I actually really like it. Now, inside is boring to my whole class. Our teacher will be like, ‘So, we’re going to go inside,’ and we’ll all be like, ‘Awwww.’ I don’t want the masks thing to continue. But I want the outdoor classroom thing to continue.”
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