The great outdoors…during this pandemic time, it’s a place we all yearn for, a place we can feel relatively safe without a mask. Dining al fresco is almost mandatory anymore and CDC recommendations contain a list of solo outdoor activities as the best way to get- or keep – moving.

For students at Suntree Elementary in Melbourne, the great outdoors is also a place to learn.

Thanks to an ambitious group of volunteer parents, students at the school are matriculating in outdoor spaces where classes are held part of each school day. According to Principal Shari Tressler, teachers use the outdoor classrooms to give students “a mask break” during the day.

The classrooms are laid out on the ground in rectangles, outlined with landscape timbers, filled with mulch and occupied by metal desks and an umbrella.

The work building the classrooms was completed by volunteer parents last summer and paid for by a Go Fund Me campaign that raised over $13,000, covering the entire project cost.

Photography by Jason Hook Photography


The original idea was proposed ten years ago by a kindergarten teacher, but nothing was done until the pandemic hit. “This summer was the first opportunity to make it happen,” said Dr. Tressler, as the school looked for alternatives to traditional in-classroom instruction.

The volunteer effort was headed by Tessa Cleveland and Aran Hissam and other parents. They cleared the ground, lined the area with landscape timbers, poured the mulch and assembled the desks. The project involved a lot of trips to the big box store for mulch, landscape timbers and other supplies. “Home Depot knows us by name,” said Cleveland.

Photography by Jason Hook Photography

The work had to be done quickly over the summer because of the pandemic. “Once school started, we couldn’t have volunteers on campus,” said Tressler. When classes resumed on August 24, all was ready.

According to Tressler, teachers take about half their classroom outdoors at a time. “Kids love them, and teachers use them as a reward.”

The initial work resulted in six outdoor classrooms, with four tables for primary (K-2nd grade), and six larger tables for intermediate (3-6th grade) students. Social distancing is observed, and students are not required to wear masks when outdoors.

Other schools in the area have taken note and await parent volunteers to make it happen.
And there might yet be more outdoor learning spaces at Suntree. We want more of them,” Tressler said.

“We will add more if they can raise more money.”

Fred Mays

Fred Mays is a freelance writer and photographer who resides in Satellite Beach. He is a retired television journalist, and active on media issues with the Brevard Indian River Lagoon Coalition. His blog is