Exeter Township 4th Grade Teacher finds Natural Benefits to taking Students Outside

As he popped an SD card from a trail cam into his laptop, Matt Hathaway’s 4th grade class was the quietest they had been since arriving at his outdoor classroom.

As he scrolled through the footage taken from one of the five trail cams that he hid around the grounds of Owatin Creek Elementary School, he smiled as he turned his laptop around to reveal a photo of a buck to his delighted class.

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They ooh’ed and ahh’ed as he walked around with his laptop to show them each the four-legged beauty who had been poking around the wooden benches of their outdoor classroom just days before.

Other than the laptop and the trail cam, the scene was almost like something out of Waldens Woods as Hathaway led his class through a variety of questions about this small ecosystem right in Owatin Creek’s backyard.

“Why is a dead tree not always a bad thing?” he asked his students as they gazed up to find it leafless, and the ground below it lit up with sun and signs of new growth.

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As the creator and founder of Teachers in the Parks, an outdoor summer learning camp that started in Exeter 17 years ago, teaching science lessons outside a few times a month seemed like a natural step to take with his traditional school-year instruction.

“Out here, they discover the answers to questions that they wouldn’t necessarily figure out on their own sitting inside,” he said. “The instruction is the same, but in this environment, they become so much more engaged. Students who never ask questions indoors ask me questions outside. They’re hooked right away.”

Witnessing his students’ enthusiasm for learning outside, Hathaway began taking his science classes outdoors about five years ago, eventually converting a space down behind the school and near a pond into an outdoor classroom.

Thanks to a donation made by the Wanser family and the Exeter Home Depot, the area was outfitted with wooden benches where his students could sit. Home Depot also provided lumber and materials to create wooden and gravel steps down to the area, with Exeter students installing and maintaining them for Eagle Scout projects.

Hathaway secured the trail cams as part of an Exeter Community Education Foundation grant, with the Owatin Creek APT providing replacements as needed. Regularly, he checks the footage from the cameras with his students—one of which is near a tall bird perch he built—and selects photos to print from the footage, which he hangs outside of his classroom throughout the year.

Besides providing learning opportunities that his students would never experience indoors, this year Hathaway found a secondary benefit to the outdoor classroom: “When most of my class returned to school in March, I was eager to find ways to teach as safely as possible. Being outside is just one of those ways in which we can help mitigate the spread of COVID at school.”

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