Get Outside! How NMH Has Reimagined its Campus

Sept. 17, 2020 — For the first time since March, the 45-member Concert Choir sang together on campus. Instead of rehearsing in the Rhodes Arts Center, students gathered in an unexpected location: the ice hockey rink. An outdoor pavilion with open sides — for now — the rink gave singers the space they needed to be together in one place while staying at least six feet apart.  

Sheila Heffernon, director of music and choral programs at NMH, said, “Even though we were all masked, it was easy to see the smiles. These students were so happy to be doing something they can’t do alone. Even though these particular students had never sung together as a group, they all started to harmonize, on their own.”

For choir member Emma Chaffee ’21, the experience was surreal. “Walking down there, I felt a little confused, like I was on my way to hockey practice,” said Chaffee, who is also a member of the girls’ varsity ice hockey team. “But it illustrates why I wanted to come to NMH. I wanted to be part of the arts program and also do athletics. Both departments worked together to make this happen.”

Choir rehearsal in a sports pavilion is just one example of how NMH is maximizing its expansive rural campus by repurposing or creating new spaces outdoors. 

It’s never been unusual to see biology students examining flora in the woods or monitoring agriculture projects on the NMH Farm. But these days, when it’s safer to share space with others by being outdoors, NMH is finding new ways for classes and activities to gather safely outside, in math and history classes, taking a dance class, playing “indoor” sports like volleyball and basketball, or simply enjoying lunch with friends. 

NMH installed nine new pavilions around campus. Eight of them can be used by academic classes and one serves as an outdoor dining area. Some teachers are using other spots for classes, and in the “Hemlock Classroom,” carefully placed tree stumps double as chairs in a clearing in the woods on the edge of campus. 

Half of the Hayden tennis courts is being transformed into an outdoor basketball court, where “all students can gather, exercise, and share their love for basketball,” said Athletic Director Debby Ghezzi. Volleyball nets were set up in the heart of campus for the first few weeks of the season, and “the girls got to take their shoes off to play and got some much-needed fresh air, especially after the first week of online classes,” said Meg Merlino, the varsity volleyball head coach.

On a recent morning, Andy Corwin’s astronomy class sat in folding chairs on the lawn near the school’s observatory, with Corwin moving around to demonstrate the moon’s orbit around the Earth and the Earth’s orbit around the sun. He pulled prop after prop from a large blue bag — a red bucket to represent the sun, a globe for Earth, and a softball moon.

“It has forced me a little out of my comfort zone, but I’m finding that some students really thrive in outdoor classes,” he said. Oscar Rigo ’21 is one of them. “There are birds flying around and squirrels out in the field,” Rigo said. “It’s kind of romantic. It’s the ideal environment.”

Check out photos and videos that show how NMH is reimagining the outdoors.