Importance of NYC’s outdoor learning initiative is clear to Little Neck special ed teacher

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This article was published in the Queens Daily Eagle by Rachel Vick on November 24, 2020.

Two years ago, P.S. 811 in Little Neck transformed a concrete corner of its schoolyard into an accessible oasis to engage students in a curriculum that taught independence and vocational skills through gardening. The benefits of the open air learning program were clear for students with special needs, said teacher Abir Bousaid.

“Being outdoors was so good for them, they were so happy being outdoors,” Bousaid said. “We gave them a routine and goals, because I wanted to make it as structured as possible, but I gave them independence as well. It was very successful.”

The school worked with the National Wildlife Federation for NYC Schools Eco-Schools Program to make the program happen. Now the NWF and GrowNYC are trying to bring those novel programs to more than 1 million public school students stuck at home. 

The organizations have released a curriculum and resource guide to help schools looking to create and increase outdoor education during the COVID-19 shutdown.

The Outdoor Learning Toolkit outlines potential open-air learning locations, safety considerations and benefits that range from stress reduction to exploration.

Bousaid the gardening program helped develop social and emotional skills among her students with disabilities and other special needs. The kids who participated in the gardening program interacted better in the garden and had overall improved social skills and independence, according to a study that she conducted.

Bousaid said they planted, grew and sold vegetables to staff, and were able to help her make omelets using the produce they grew. The work and harvest was a new experience for some, including students who had never eaten vegetables before, she said. 

One of the greatest success stories came from the parent of a non-verbal student on the Autism spectrum who came home and asked for a cucumber — two landmark achievements for the family, Bousaid said.

“I’m so passionate and want it to extend it to every school, especially District 75,” she said. “Having those students work outdoors, even with limitations and physical disabilities you see how happy they are — they can do these things.”

The biggest roadblocks to instituting outdoor learning are ensuring staff support and funding, Bousaid said.

The toolkit helps to solve the latter issue. It outlines grants available for school gardens and learning initiatives, as well as partners that can offer resources, rather than money.

COVID-19 restrictions will dictate the future of the program, but there are tentative plans to bring the plants to the students, Bousaid said.

She currently works at a different school, which she is helping to establish an outdoor program of their own, but said she continues to describe the benefits of outdoor education for students of all abilities.

“We have to adapt by exploring. Schools in Queens, like ours, have the space behind to turn ugly, boring cement into a garden with vegetables and green,” Bousaid said.

“These things stay with you,” she added. “These are the happy memories you create for your students.”