If you know Sanford School, you know the natural beauty and roaming hills of the campus that lent the school its original namesake—Sunny Hills. While it is the work of Sanford faculty that provides the quality education Sanford aims to deliver, it is often what lies outside of the campus’s academic buildings that comes to mind when one thinks of what makes Sanford unique. Teachers have always found ways to incorporate the larger campus into students’ learning experiences, but now, for the first time in Sanford’s ninety-year history will its outdoor spaces be used as a safer alternative to the traditional classroom setting.
Sanford PROVIDES A Large Campus
As Sanford plans to safely reopen in the midst of the current COVID-19 pandemic, its campus will play a large role in ensuring the safety of its students. In addition to instituting physical distancing and mask policies, Sanford will make further use of its outdoor spaces by increasing outdoor learning opportunities and establishing outdoor “classrooms” to minimize the spread of germs between students. Large outdoor event tents will be set up around Sanford to create these classrooms for use by all divisions. The primary benefit of outdoor teaching is the constant circulation of air that it offers, which reduces the chance that respiratory droplets lingering in the air are breathed in by others. Additionally, outdoor Wi-Fi coverage will be expanded to support outdoor teaching.
Sanford's Campus Provides Outdoor Learning
Sanford's beautiful 85-acre campus lends itself to outdoor learning. Though unseen on such a large scale before, Sanford is no stranger to teaching outdoors for academics, physical education, or activities. “[We have] long encouraged students and teachers to go outside for discussions and activities” notes Head of School Mark Anderson, adding that “in 2020, the big difference is that now we will see more of this.” In 2018, Sanford student Alistair Bebbington ’20 constructed the second outdoor classroom on Sanford’s campus as his Eagle Scout service project. Classes across all divisions meet in these spaces to make use of the outdoors as an educational resource: On any given school day students can be found searching for insects by the stream or writing poetry under a tree.
Innovative Learning Activities expand
These familiar activities will continue this school year. Still, teachers from preschool through 12th grade are finding new ways to creatively engage with their students outdoors. Fifth-grade teachers Wendy Nashed and Colleen Miller plan to use the outdoor classrooms to teach their social studies classes about Native Americans in context. Upper School science teacher Alyssa Hull will take advantage of outdoor teaching by beginning the school year with a unit on ecology, making use of the campus’s Cab Calloway Pond to teach students about water sampling and pH testing. Among the many changes taking place this year in the Lower School is the addition of yoga mats and beach towels to students’ back-to-school supplies list. These accessories will provide students with a flexible seating option that can be taken to various spots on campus, in addition to serving as a visual indicator for appropriate physical distancing measures.
Learning Outdoors Reconnects Students With Nature
After what for many has been a summer with more time spent indoors than usual, outdoor learning opportunities also offer students the chance to reconnect with nature on a consistent basis. Inscribed in the stone entrance to Chapel Valley is an invitation from the Class of 1951 to “Enter and find peace” in the nature of Sanford’s campus. This invitation seems a fitting response to a pandemic that makes peace of mind particularly elusive. While the campus has changed since then, students in 2020 may find the peace in Sanford's campus that those students living at Sunny Hills School did in 1951. Upper School Counselor Sarah Satinsky echoes this message today, citing the numerous mental health benefits that spending time outdoors offers as an opportunity to enhance student well-being (Jordan). “Being outside can do wonders for mental health. The fresh air and groundedness that comes from being in nature can actually be very calming. In addition, if outdoor learning allows students to more safely congregate, then it is absolutely going to be beneficial to their overall well-being. Humans are social beings, and the more togetherness, the stronger the feelings of connection, all of which contribute to mental health.” At a school where community plays such a central role, and in a time where being with others is met with unease, being in nature allows a degree of social familiarity sought since the start of the pandemic in March.
Although those who carved their message into stone back in 1951 could not be aware of its new context, the meaning remains the same: When the world we build for ourselves indoors has become overwhelming or even unsafe, look to nature for solace, enter, and find peace.
Jordan, Rob. “Stanford Researchers Find Mental Health Prescription: Nature.” Stanford University, 30 June 2015, news.stanford.edu/news/2015/june/hiking-mental-health-063015.html.
Justin McLellan graduated from Sanford as a lifer in 2016 before receiving a degree in philosophy from the University of Notre Dame. He has had extensive teaching experience, working in classrooms in the United States, Peru, and Italy. Justin returned to Sanford as a Communications and Technology Associate in 2020 and was awarded a Fulbright teaching fellowship at the Université catholique de Louvain in Louvain-la-Neuve, Belgium, to begin in 2021.