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Thursday, May 2, 2019

Small Middle PDU- What We Learned

We chose to embark on this PDU to challenge ourselves to find data driven evidence for the work we do.

Goals of the PDU:

Discover if meaningful contact with nature reduces stress and leads to improved overall well-being and creative problem solving. We believe this contributes to the Social Emotional Learning initiatives on campus and district wide. Our goal also supports the integration of 21st Century skills which is another of the districts initiatives.

* Study groups are comprised of students in Green classes 6,7,8 *

Resources Used:

Last Child in the Woods  Richard Louv
Nature Fix Florence Williams

We chose these resources because they are inline with our hypothesis that being outside and connecting with nature does indeed improve a child’s stress levels and overall well being. The strategies and activities in these resources have been vetted and are scientifically sound.


Subjective short-term--interview/survey students about how they feel before and after a variety of outdoor activities, e.g, taking care of animals, working in the garden, walking in the woods, etc.

Subjective long-term--Interview/survey kids about how they feel after a semester of Green classes vs. other non-outdoor classes, and before and after surveys identifying elements students see as contributing to a happy life.

Objective short-term--blood pressure readings/pulse rate, well-defined creative problem solving tasks after at least 30 minutes of nature contact vs. none (or after indoor academic tasks)

Objective long-term--basic physical exam, creative problem solving task after minimal outdoor exposure vs. significant duration (at least a month?)

Strategies/Activities Used:

Animal Care

Shelter Building (collaborative problem solving activity)


Forest Bathing (nature walk)

Data and Scales:

Short Term:

Emoji Stress/Mood Scale for 6th grade students. Results shown on the Student Self-Report Spreadsheet. We used 10 levels in order to simplify percentage comparisons.

Perfect 10
Feeling Great 9
Feeling Pretty Good 8
No Worries 7
I’m Okay 6
Not Sure 5
Meh 4
A Little Anxious 3
Really Stressed 2
Horrible 1

Anxiety Quiz  from (See below)

Long Term:

8th Grade Prompt:

Describe your general mood and stress level at school when you are in a classroom versus outdoors.

Liam--When we are outside my mood is way higher and outgoing.

Mariko--Being able to go outside and have fresh air, working with animals reduces my stress level and makes me happier.

Raymond--Going outside improves my mood. Today we ate some mint, columbine flowers and snap peas.

Olivia--I like to look at the sky, birds and trees and talk with my friends instead of being in a stuffy classroom.

Zachary--My stress level always goes down when I’m outside. We’re stuck in classes so much, it’s nice to have a period where we can kinda relax.

Reichen--I like being able to have fun and do work at the same time like with the animals.

Mel--I feel less bored and much less stressed when I’m outside.

Maddie--I like walking the goats; it somehow puts me in a better mood.

Tyler--When I’m outside my mind feels really clear and my mood is really chill.

Jack--Looking at life flourishing outside is very therapeutic.

Elizabeth--When I go outside I feel less stressed.

Xander--Being outside is way better than than being in a classroom. I feel more relaxed especially with the animals.

Tristin--Being outside lowers my stress level. When we are in a small classroom and people are yelling, I get annoyed.

Sergio--I like being outside with a nice little breeze on a sunny day.

Vivian--When I go outside, I know I will be doing something fun and worthwhile. Sometimes I go outside to help my anxiety. I take several deep breaths of fresh air and start to relax.

Noah--If I am frustrated about something like homework or a test, going outside can help me relieve that stress.

Austin--I am generally in a better mood outside. However, going back inside I actually feel worse.

Lana--Especially in the springtime when everything blooms, my mood almost always picks up.

Pearl--When we get to go outside I feel a lot more freedom. I like feeling responsible for the things we do outside and not having to be supervised all the time.

Robert--I feel like I become a better person outside because it allows me to let out stress and not scream at someone.

Caden--Being outside during Green classes makes me feel more awakened and refreshed for the day.

Kate--Going outside is good for your mental health, especially in a place with lots of plants and animals.

Carl--I think going outside during school is a good brain break.

Aileen--The calling of birds and the grass blowing in the wind makes me calm because I am used to hearing industrial sounds like construction and trucks.

Leo--Outside I can be completely alone and in silence.

Emma--Being outside makes me more positive by putting things in perspective.

Jayna--I feel like I am more in the moment when I am outside.

Ezra--I find being surrounded by nature very relaxing.

Shabbir--I like doing garden work and working with animals. It’s a nice breather.

Ellina--Being outside teaches me things I might not get to understand in a classroom setting.

Kylie--Going outside definitely makes my mood improve when I am at school.

Andre--Being outside makes me feel better, mostly because I’m not outside that much.

Summary of Results/Data:

6th Grade

The Shelter Build activity was universally loved. In addition to almost perfect post-activity scores, we heard nothing but positive comments and requests to “do it all the time.” We hypothesized that it was so popular because it combined all the elements: active, collaborative, unstructured play plus creative problem solving in a beautiful setting.

Forest Bathing was also popular but required considerable transition time. Many perceived it as doing nothing and wanted to talk to other students. Those who recognized that they were being given permission to simply relax and observe their surroundings reported the greatest reductions in stress and elevation of mood.

Interacting with animals showed the greatest splits in responses. Many found it to be the most satisfying and calming of the activities. These students were often the ones who tended to be most empathetic in a variety of situations. However, some didn’t like it at all, reporting that they had had negative experiences with certain animals in the past or had phobias.

Gardening may be the closest to a baseline for this type of study because most responses were positive without large deviations. Although we do have a significant minority of students with OCD tendencies, most anecdotal responses focused on the benefits of “just being outside” and “hanging out with my friends.”

8th Grade

Although we would love to have been able to conclude that children exposed to Outdoor Learning classes for at least three years became somehow “re-wilded,” most of the responses from 8th graders displayed an emerging consciousness of a Nature Connection, at best. The consensus seemed to be that Nature represented not so much an elemental part of learning and living, but a temporary escape from the stresses of school.


It is difficult to quantify well-being, but we suggest that linking it somehow to “higher grades” and “improved test scores” is an invalid metric--and, quite possibly the primary cause of decreasing well-being. Well being has more to do with the stress levels, mindfulness and self-awareness of a person than objective test scores.

We will continue to use these strategies and activities. We will also, continue to seek out books and PD that put value on students connecting with nature and getting outside. We wholeheartedly believe that this will improve all areas of a students life including, but not for the purpose of, greater academic success.

Friday, April 26, 2019

10 Years of Change

The Small Green Academy and the In Small Gardens blog are nearing their 10 year anniversaries.

Small Middle School has been around almost 20 years and has been increasing its green footprint the entire time. The real growth of our outdoor learning environment began in 2010, and it appears is has been exponential growth.

With the assistance of our resident Art Genius, Mr. T, we have 2 photos to show the growth, change, and impact of students on the environment and habitat restoration. Thanks and enjoy!

Small MS Northside Circa 2010

Northside 2019

Wednesday, April 24, 2019

Spring 2019 Photos:Updated

Pond plants flower

Optimistic Art
Art Inspiration

Glow Dance Fundraiser

Austin Fire Guest Speakers

Mural Inspiration

Resident Animal Control

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