While outdoor classrooms certainly aren’t anything new, a tent classroom pilot project is helping keep teachers and students safe and warm this winter.

Throughout the pandemic, health officials have been encouraging Manitobans to spend more time outdoors, given the emphasis on physical distancing and good quality ventilation to prevent the transmission of COVID-19.

With this in mind, Louis Riel School Division has been renting out large white canopy tents for teachers to use as outdoor classrooms for phys-ed and music. École Sage Creek School, École St. Germain and École Van Belleghem are all under the tent classroom pilot, which began in mid-November of last year.

“The children are very excited to be in the tent and it creates a little intimate atmosphere for us,” said Mary Kirkwood, a music teacher at École St. Germain. “We are basically just taking what we would do outside in a huge space, and moving it into the tent, which has been nice on windy days.”

Kirkwood uses a utility wagon to transport all of her gear to the two tents, which feature large openings for proper ventilation, and are located behind the school. She uses a headset microphone and portable speakers so all of her students can hear her and the music she’s playing off of her phone. Kirkwood said none of this would have been possible without the support of their school division, school administrators and guidance from Jennifer Engbrecht, the school’s outdoor music education enthusiast.

“Everything Jennifer does when she teaches is done with a purpose,” Kirkwood said. “Prior to the pandemic she had embraced outdoor opportunities for music learning with activities such as using the play structure as her classroom and the students made music using various instruments while having a lot of fun.

“Now that we have tents, students can stay outside so it changes up the interaction a little bit.”

Due to COVID, students haven’t been allowed to sing or play traditional instruments at the school. Instead, students have been spending their time moving, dancing, learning about body percussion and listening to music while improvising and being creative. During a recent outdoor music class at the school, Grade 1 students, some of which kept their face masks on but weren’t required to, followed along as Kirkwood danced to music while playing a handheld drum.

When asked what they like about music in the tents, students said the tents keep them “snuggly and warm,” they also like the woodchips on the ground and that they have a lot more space to move around.

“We are still active music makers, without instruments and without our voice,” Kirkwood said, adding her students have been very responsive to all of the changes. “Being outside is awesome … and especially with the pandemic I feel safe teaching outside.”

Daryl Fillion, a phys-ed teacher at Sage Creek, said he never imagined he’d one day be teaching inside of a tent outdoors during a pandemic.

“I never expected the three of us to be wearing ski goggles … and all bundled up,” Fillion said with a laugh. “It’s a creative idea.”

Although it’s been a very different and challenging school year, Fillion said he’s amazed at how well his colleagues have banded together and adapted on the fly.

“We have three full-time gym teachers here so we’re able to really bounce ideas off each other,” he said, adding the tent classrooms have been a great addition to their school. “It’s amazing how much warmer you can be in a tent … it’s just getting them out of the wind makes a huge difference.

“It’s a nice reprieve from the elements.”

He said the tents are also paving the way for students to spend more time learning outdoors safely.

“Because we’re such a big school, the more we can be outside, the safer they are,” he said.

During one of his recent phys-ed classes, students played scoop ball inside the tents and then moved outdoors to toss around some hula hoops. Fillion says his students have quickly adapted to the tents and are enjoying them.

“They’ve adapted just to the outdoors really well. We expected more challenges, but they’re pretty resilient and now we’re learning new ways to use them,” he said. “We’re making the best of a very hard situation.”