By Kate Raddatz

MINNEAPOLIS (WCCO) — It’s 1 degree Fahrenheit on a sunny February day at Gatewood Elementary School in Minnetonka. The kindergarteners have their bundling up routines down.

“We got out snow pants, jacket, hat, mittens, and gloves,” kindergarten student Leah Ehlert said.

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On Wednesday morning, the three kindergarten classes headed outside for their morning circle. They were learning about Groundhog Day. Then, they’ll explore.

“It’s fun and we get to climb,” kindergarten student Lyra Anderson said.

This is the first year of an outdoor, play-based kindergarten program at the Hopkins district school. Research shows outdoor education can create more engaged students, improve moods and decrease stress, among other benefits.

The idea for the model came up last spring.

“The pandemic was in our lives, lots of learning loss, this was a good way to be innovative,” principal Dr. George Nolan said.

“It’s one of the best things we’ve ever done for children,” kindergarten teacher Kay McCarthy said.

McCarthy has taught at Gatewood Elementary for almost 20 years.

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“I see things like collaboration, working together carrying logs, moving things, that we try to create inside that just happens outside,” she said.

Students can roam the woods behind the school. They go out rain, with rain suits, or shine. In the wintertime, they typically are outside as long as the wind chill is above minus 10 but there is some wiggle room depending on the sun.

Right now students spend about 50% of their days outside intending to aim for more.

Dr. Nolan said they’ve heard from other schools interested in their program.

“Our kindergarten teachers want our kids to explore,” he said. “I think that’s what education should be about.”

Next year the school will move its first-graders to an outdoor model. The goal is to have the entire school in outdoor-based learning by the 2023 school year.


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Kate Raddatz