Outdoor Education Adventures Propagate in Ann Arbor

Outdoor Classes
Walkers stroll on the sidewalks on October 11 to raise money and educate others about local and world hunger. Image courtesy of Bob McGinnis

Teachers and students are venturing outside in order to get some fresh air and better avoid COVID for learning to take place.

COVID-19 has prompted many educators and instructors, and those with something to teach/learn, to take to the great outdoors for their lessons. We talked to religious, dance, and music teachers, and even activists about how to teach and learn outdoors — where the virus is less transmissible.

Religious Education

Ellen Ward is Director of Religious Education at Saint Francis of Assisi Parish in Ann Arbor. She shared successful techniques the parish has been enacting to continue religious education services since the summer.

In late August, we began outdoor classes in the playground and areas around the Church,” Ward explained. “The children and youth bring their own blanket or camping chair, wear a mask, and are guided to sit the distance apart as necessary to provide safety from the coronavirus. For our after school classes in the Faith, we started six weeks earlier than the normal start date in the past. We did so with the idea of taking advantage of the warmer weather with the intention of taking a longer break in late November to late January. We wanted to offer options to our families and thus we offered in-person outside classes and also offered Zoom classes for virtual learning. About half of the families choose outdoor classes to start with and the other half chose Zoom.”

The children reportedly enjoy being outdoors very much, even more than the traditional classroom environment. Ward stated that the children are happier outdoors as well as more engaged. It has also prompted increased inquisitiveness, social interaction, and general joy according to Ward. 

“Sunshine, fresh air, pleasant smells, and sights of flowers, grass, and evergreens, wide-open spaces, the beauty of nature, the experience of changing seasons, and so much more are benefits that bring peace to the mind, a joy to the spirit, and a feeling of contentment,” Ward described. “Class outdoors gives the children a space that encourages a connectedness between God’s love for us with his love for all creation. Learning the Faith in an outdoor classroom can cultivate in children an appreciation and respect for our common home.”

Saint Francis of Assisi Parish has also offered other outdoor activities, including outdoor Mass.

Outdoor Class
Students gather for outdoor religious education at Saint Francis of Assisi Parish. Image courtesy of Ellen Ward

Music in Nature

Alicia Doudna is a violinist and educator who has been playing since she was three years old and taught the violin since she was in high school. According to Doudna, she chooses to teach her violin lessons to students outside when the weather allows, and she stated, “I teach on a screened back porch or garage keeping safe social distance and all wear masks.”

While Doudna has also taught virtually, she prefers the in-person classes.

“While online lessons are beneficial and valuable as well, and I have done them and plan to return as weather changes and until COVID is no longer a true risk, personal, human connection is very valuable as I can tell all feel the ‘internal warmth’ it shares and eliminating the sound delay that is always apparent when playing together online affects chamber music accuracy and avoiding that when possible saves time and shares development, direction, and most of all enjoyment with all,” Doudna detailed.

She added many benefits to learning outdoors as well.

“Fresh air is healthy for all and truly feeling and acknowledging natural senses — eyes, ears, et cetera — shares a feeling of true interaction and acknowledgment,” Doudna stated. 

Stretch and Dance

Gari Stein has been teaching a class titled “Stretch and Move in the Park — Music That Moves You” for the past three months in Mayfield Park. 

“Neighbors were invited to join in our neighborhood park, no charge,” Stein described. “Initially, it was designed with adults in mind, but two young sisters attended on their own and several folks brought their little ones. It’s been delightful.

There have also been toddlers in strollers in attendance as well. 

“This is my first experience leading a movement class outside,” Stein divulged. “I was concerned at first about the sound and disturbing other neighbors, but I am loving it; the fresh air and greeting the day. We end with a big stretch. As I look up to the sky and the clouds, I get goosebumps, gratitude, and peace wash over me like a warm blanket.”

Stein plays a great variety of music, for instance, one program began with a slow stretch — music by Linda Ronstadt and Cat Stevens. Simple dances — music by Beatles, Rod Stewart, and Mahlathini. Line dance-music by Billy Ray Cyrus, Waltz. Ending with a slow stretch — music from Out of Africa.

Stein said she hopes to continue through October or even longer if the weather allows and people continue to come.

“All in all it’s been a joyful experience and I look forward to continuing in the Spring. I am also available in other neighborhoods that want to do something similar,” Stein concluded. 

Outdoor Classes
Children and adults gather in Maryfield Park to stretch and dance together. Image courtesy of Donna Iadipaolo.

Walk and Learn for Hunger

Mary Pratt is co-chair, with Barb Fichtenberg, of the Ann Arbor CROP Hunger Walk. Pratt is also a retired nurse and has lived in Ann Arbor for 37 years.

CROP Hunger Walks usually takes place in late September or early October. CROP Walk is an outdoor fundraising effort of Church World Services (CWS) and raises money for local, national, and worldwide hunger issues, according to Pratt. But this year, the CROP Walk in Ann Arbor needed to change due to Covid. 

“Usually we meet at one church, have a short send-off service, and walk a route of one to three miles in Ann Arbor, then return to that church for a light meal. This year, due to COVID, that wasn’t possible, so our walk, with the help of our CWS co-ordinator, became virtual,” Pratt explained. 

However, walkers were also encouraged to walk independently outdoors or elsewhere. Walkers were also included to educate others about hunger issues as they walk.

“Walkers were encouraged to walk in their neighborhood, a park, or around their living room, with no groups larger than 10,” Pratt described.

This year’s associated agencies included Packard Clinic, Hope Clinic, Love Thy Neighbor, Avalon Housing, Saint Andrew’s Breakfast Program, Growing Hope, Peace Neighborhood Center, Community Action Network. The rest of the funds raised are used by CWS for refugee relief, disaster aid, water accessibility issues, and other issues related to food insecurity, according to Pratt.