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Make Outdoor Learning Your Plan A

The pandemic moved classes outdoors. We should keep them there.
Outdoor learning

Now What? — A six-part series focused on education fixes as we head back to school in person.

As schools around the country sought a safe way to bring students back to classrooms last year, a solution emerged that had worked a century ago during another health crisis. 

In the early 1900s, tuberculosis raged unchecked, and the spread was particularly bad amongst children. To mitigate transmission, a pair of Rhode Island doctors offered an idea for a fresh-air classroom. They launched their first school in Providence in 1908, and at the end of the year, not a single child got sick.  

Two years later, 65 fresh-air schools opened around the country and hundreds more around the world. But with the advent of antibiotics after World War II, the wave of outdoor classrooms faded. 

When the COVID-19 pandemic began in the spring of 2020, leaders from four environmental education organizations formed the National COVID-19 Outdoor Learning Initiative to once again encourage schools and districts to look beyond their classroom walls.  

“A century ago, schools around the world used outdoor learning, and it’s a time-tested solution that we thought would work today,” says initiative co-founder Sharon Danks, CEO of Green Schoolyards America, one of the four environmental education organizations involved. 

Along with colleagues from the Lawrence Hall of Science at the University of California Berkeley, the San Mateo County Office of Education’s Environmental Literacy and Sustainability Initiative, and Ten Strands, Danks convened a nearly 300-person volunteer force of educators, public health officials, landscape architects, and more to create an online learning library with free tools and resources for schools to create their own outdoor learning spaces. 

As a result, schools and districts from Washington to Wisconsin, Maine and Texas, creatively used outdoor spaces to safely reopen. Now, the initiative is pushing for outdoor learning not simply as a response to the current pandemic, but a long-term solution to many of the inequities systemic in traditional academic settings. 

“We say our purpose is to make outdoor learning Plan A,” Danks says. 

What to consider when thinking about outside space at school

It’s a flexible alternative. With the CDC once again recommending as much fresh air as possible for students and educators, outdoor classrooms can be an easy and cheaper way to offer better air quality, as well as a way to increase school capacity. However, rather than thinking about moving everyone outside immediately, Danks says schools can start by having meals and afterschool programs or music classes outdoors. 

The economic investment in these spaces can also be flexible. While some schools purchased tents or installed outdoor Wi-Fi, others discovered solutions as simple as giving their students a 5-gallon bucket that could be used to carry supplies, then flipped over to serve as a seat under a shady tree. With a return to “normal” school still uncertain with the spread of the Delta variant and increasing mask mandates, outdoor classes, Danks says, could prove an alternative for years to come. 

“This is about schools and districts making plans for ongoing resilience,” says Danks. “COVID-19 is not the last event they will have to plan for, and the outdoor classroom is a good strategy to have in their arsenal.” 

"If restaurants were able to find space by converting parking spaces and sidewalks into dining space, there’s no reason schools can’t do the same."

Craig Strang, associate director of learning and teaching, Lawrence Hall of Science

It works even in colder climates. It might seem like an option that can only work under ideal weather conditions, but outdoor classrooms flourished even in cold weather climates last year. 

In Maine, the Portland Public School District stands out as a success story, where the district created 156 outdoor classrooms to accommodate the more than 5,000 students out of 6,750 who wanted to return to in-person learning. The outdoor spaces, including nooks in nearby woods, were used throughout the year, even in the winter. 

Danks says the key to making outdoor classrooms work in extreme conditions is to keep kids warm and dry. That means keeping kids moving, offering warm drinks, and especially making sure everyone, kids and adults, have access to appropriate clothing. “We see outdoor clothing as outdoor infrastructure,” she says.  

Outdoors can be a permanent option. Craig Strang, associate director of learning and teaching at the Lawrence Hall of Science, says that the benefits of outdoor learning extend beyond just the current health crisis. 

“We know that outdoor learning accelerates learning itself and can help with the unfinished learning that resulted from schools closing, but outdoor learning isn’t just a remedy for the pandemic,” he says. “This is good for kids and human beings at all times.” 

Research has shown that outdoor learning can have huge benefits on student mental health and academic performance. Students are often calmer and better able to focus when learning in nature, and teachers have reported better behavior and social interactions with fewer disciplinary issues.

There are challenges. Of course, even in the best of times, outdoor learning has been a challenge for the most vulnerable students in schools that don’t have easy access to outdoor spaces. And yet Strang says outdoor learning can and should be an option for everyone. Two ideas he suggests:  

  1. Concrete classrooms: Strang says if restaurants were able to find space by converting parking spaces and sidewalks into dining space, there’s no reason schools can’t do the same, citing schools in urban settings that have used everything from umbrellas for shade and hay bales for seats to turn concrete playgrounds into inviting learning areas for kids. 
  2. Walking field trips: The Outdoor Learning Initiative has encouraged school districts to explore the idea of “walking field trips,” with teachers bringing students off campus and utilizing local parks and other public outdoor open spaces to hold programming. 

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