COVID-19 pushes Cedar Springs teacher to realize dream of outdoor classroom

CEDAR SPRINGS, Mich. — Determined to overcome hurdles created by the COVID-19 pandemic, Michigan Education Association member Audrey Debri took her Young Fives classroom to the great outdoors. 

Throughout Debri’s 10 years at Cedar Trails Elementary School, she often dreamed of making her goal of an outdoor classroom a reality as she regularly walked nature trails with her students. Little did she know, a global pandemic would be the push to make it happen. 

“COVID kind of forced my hand,” Debri said. “I thought, OK, well, there’s this now, so we’re just going to go for it. But it’s been years in the making.”

To create her pine-needle-carpeted classroom, Debri and her husband built permanently rooted benches, standing tables and a whiteboard in a clearing underneath tall conifer trees on property adjacent to Debri’s school.

Since beginning this journey two years ago, Debri and her husband have expanded the outdoor classroom — only a short walk away from the school — to include a creative play area featuring a kitchen sink, a stove with dishes and utensils, large wooden blocks, an art easel, a magnetic board, a dry-erase board and a weaving station. 

“Anything that can be taught indoors can also be taught outdoors — you just have to be creative and think outside of the box,” she said. 

Debri’s students learn about the biology of bees and other insects and animals during literacy and science lessons that inspire good environmental stewardship. The children now enjoy discovering new critters they once feared. 

Debri has remained committed to the full-time outdoor classroom. Only lightning and below-zero temperatures prevent the students from going outside for safety reasons. Her students have also learned to respect boundaries and follow safety rules while learning outdoors. 

“Research shows regular outdoor education can greatly benefit students both in and out of school,” said MEA President Paula Herbart. “We’re proud of Audrey for taking the initiative to support her students during such a challenging time. She is truly a trailblazer, and her outdoor classroom is a prime example of what it means to be a Champion for Education.”  

NOTE: Read more on this story from MEA’s Brenda Ortega in the most recent MEA Voice magazine here.

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