Outdoor Learning Becomes Second Nature For FCPS Elementary Students in Centreville

By Communication and Community Relations Staff
April 22, 2021
students walking towards a tent
Students at Centreville Elementary School head to class earlier this month

As the weather turns warmer, some FCPS principals are utilizing outdoor space to create an alternative learning environment surrounded by nature, part of a successful pilot program due to be expanded this summer and fall.

On a sunny spring morning, first-grade teacher Nia Manoleras addresses 12 students perched on tree stumps positioned under canvas in the grounds of Centreville Elementary School.

She turns to her class and asks, “What’s a word that rhymes with fun?” And then directing her attention to a laptop screen, she speaks to her virtual students, “What do you guys think?” Small hands enthusiastically shoot skywards all around.

Behind her on the whiteboard a message reads, “It’s fun to work outside.”

Six year-old Daniella couldn’t agree more. “It’s fun to be outdoors, I like learning, I like nature,” she says emphatically.

Six year-old Daniella sitting on a tree stump
First-grade student Daniella perches on a tree-stump stool

Centreville Elementary is one of five schools piloting a project launched in November to test out tented classrooms. The purpose being not only to add more floor space and accommodate more students but also because transmission rates of Covid-19 are drastically reduced in the outdoors, meaning this is a safer learning environment.

FCPS Facilities Management staff worked closely with FCPS Get2Green to establish how to get the best use of our abundant outdoor space during the pandemic.

And now that spring is here and the weather is milder, tents are being erected and utilized at Belvedere Elementary School in Falls Church, Carson Middle School in Herndon, Hollin Meadows Elementary School in Alexandria  and Mountain View High School as well as at Centreville.

The 20ft by 30 ft mini marquees with detachable sides, easily fit in a class of socially distanced students and teacher.

students and teacher in a tent sitting on tree stumps
Students remain socially distanced and wearing masks with no concerns about ventilation

A further sixty tents have been purchased (with more orders expected) as part of a planned roll out across the division throughout summer and into the fall.  Facilities staff are working with school administrators to assess their school campus and add flexible outdoor spaces for learning and eating to support social distancing guidance to the maximum extent. 

At Centreville, a school of 800 plus, being outside in the shadows of the Appalachian foothills has been a part of their identity for many years. Outdoor learning spaces dot the lush green campus. It was the first school in the US to receive permanent “green flag” status from the National Wildlife Federation in recognition of commitment to the environment. Sustainability is built into the everyday life of staff and students here.

So when the COVID pandemic stuck last year, principal Josh Douds knew he had the tools at his disposal to step up a gear and make outdoor learning a focus for a safe teaching environment. And he had a community of families that wanted to see this happen.

He said, “We are a school that believes in outdoor learning and outdoor education so this encompasses who we are. The staff has really embraced this and love the ability to get the students outside and learn. This is where we strive.

“Staff have reported to me that students are better focused and better behaved when they are outdoors. The kids love it, they want to be outside and the families are supportive.”

Students receive a few hours a week instruction time outside, come rain or shine thanks to the addition of the tent. Teachers are encouraged to utilize aspects of nature and the environment whenever possible to support traditional learning methods.

For example, teachers may introduce or reinforce multiplication and estimation skills by identifying a section of grass in a field and counting the number of insects found. Students would use this number and their multiplication skills to estimate the total number of insects in the field. Through this process students are learning/reinforcing traditional math skills through nature and outdoor learning.

Nia Manoleras teaching in an outdoor classroom
Teachers have embraced the opportunity to work outside and report that students are more focused than ever. Pictured here is Nia Manoleras.

For Ms. Manoleras,  the switch to teaching in the great outdoors has been a blessing.

“I’m a huge outdoor learning person,” she said. “I love bringing the students out and sometimes it’s related to science but we've also come out and done math lessons out here, we've done a lot of reading, we've used the chalk outside and the students are so engaged out here.” 

She added, “The time of year that we get to do this right now is awesome because the weather is not too hot, not too cold. Having the covered space available means you can’t say we cannot  do outdoor learning.

“Outdoor learning is something that is very new in a lot of our buildings and it just makes teaching so wonderful.”

a student works on math on a tree stump
First-grade student Yahya gets to grips with building blocks in math class.

Watch our video on outdoor learning at Centreville Elementary School:

Status of Tent Installations at FCPS Schools (4/29/21)

15 schools currently have tents for outdoor classrooms.  Another 43 schools have requested.  8 Schools have requested tents for graduation activities.   

Currently Installed

  • Belvedere ES
  • Carson MS
  • Centreville ES
  • Hollin Meadows ES
  • Mountain View HS
  • Aldrin ES
  • Canterbury Woods ES
  • Chesterbrook ES
  • Franklin Sherman ES
  • Haycock ES
  • Kent Gardens ES
  • Lemon Road ES
  • Pine Springs ES
  • Shrevewood ES
  • Westlawn ES


Requested Tents

  • Bonnie Brae ES
  • Baileys ES
  • Brookfield ES
  • Camelot ES
  • Centre Ridge ES
  • Colin Powell ES
  • Cub Run ES
  • Daniels Run ES
  • Deer Park ES
  • Dogwood ES
  • Fairview ES
  • Forest Edge ES
  • Frost MS
  • Glen Forest ES
  • Greenbriar East ES
  • Greenbriar West ES
  • Hughes MS
  • Hunters Woods ES
  • Hutchison ES
  • Lanier MS
  • Laurel Ridge ES
  • Liberty MS
  • Little Run ES
  • London Towne ES
  • Mantua ES
  • Mosby Woods ES
  • Oak Hill ES
  • Oakview ES
  • Oakton ES
  • Olde Creek ES
  • Poplar Tree ES
  • Providence ES
  • Ravensworth ES
  • Robinson HS
  • Rocky Run MS
  • Stone MS
  • Union Mill Es
  • Virginia Run ES
  • Wakefield Forest ES
  • Willow Springs
  • Woodson HS
  • Woodburn ES

Tents installed for Graduation Activities 

  • Annandale HS
  • Edison HS
  • Hayfield SS
  • Lewis HS
  • Mt. Vernon HS
  • West Springfield HS
  • West Potomac HS
  • Woodson HS