Learning outdoors is here to stay

Mackenzie Nichols always dreamed that her children would go to the same school she attended: Peterborough Elementary, a small, outdoor school in southern New Hampshire with about 250 students. Her biggest concern was how her six-year-old son, Breton, would adjust to sitting in a classroom all day. Since he thrives outside, she struggled with her decision. He is most comfortable when he can roam freely and disappear into the trees behind our home.”

Peterborough’s Nichols wished students could spend more time outside, but teachers and parents were less enthusiastic about holding classes outside in the midst of New Hampshire’s bitter winter. COVID-19 hit, and Peterborough, like other schools across the country, realized that moving outside, where viral transmission is lower, was the only way to continue learning. During the first week of the school year, makeshift classroom tents were built, lunch was served outside, and lessons included looking for animal tracks in the grounds.

Peterborough residents are reluctant to bring their children back indoors as a new school year approaches. A wooded trail that runs through the school grounds will be improved along with several permanent gazebos. Despite the end of COVID, Nichols believes outdoor learning will continue. People who were cautious about it got a chance to try it out during the pandemic.”

Sharon Danks, CEO of Green Schoolyards America, says thousands of schools across the country that moved outdoors because of the pandemic plan to make outdoor classrooms permanent features. Various natural elements include trees, grass, gardens, and other plants made by Danks over the past 30 years to transform concrete schoolyards into spaces that resemble parks. Since the pandemic, she said, interest has been steadily increasing.

Danks was instrumental in forming the National COVID-19 Outdoor Learning Initiative, an initiative meant to encourage schools to stay open by moving outside in safe conditions. Whether it’s designing outdoor classrooms, finding funding, or coping with excessive heat and cold, topics range across the board. A case study from Portland, Maine, for instance, demonstrates how the district purchased and distributed hats, gloves, and snow pants to make sure all students stayed warm during the winter months.

Several studies show that students who engage in outdoor learning suffer less stress and focus more, improving their overall health.

Classes outdoors don’t just reduce the risk of kids spreading germs. Several studies show that students who engage in outdoor learning suffer less stress and focus more, improving their overall health. Since the majority of nature preschools and forest kindergartens serve communities that are predominantly white and wealthy, getting more public school students outside can improve equitable access to nature, particularly in cities where parks are concentrated near wealthier neighborhoods but schools are evenly distributed.

Danks said that schools from small independent schools to large public schools like Washington, D.C., and New York City participated in the National COVID-19 Outdoor Learning Initiative. In many cities, including Peterborough, classes will continue to be held outside even after the pandemic subsides. According to Danks, there is a sustained interest in the project. Teachers and students who went outside reported pretty universally positive results, such as happier kids and teachers who felt safer and enjoyed spending some of their day outside.

It’s not necessarily that public schools are becoming full-on outdoor camps. Other schools simply built picnic-table desks or shade structures to incorporate indoor lessons into outdoor spaces, whereas others have incorporated outdoor activities such as gardening or even mountain biking into their curriculum. Schools often build such buildings with federal funds distributed to help them cope with pandemics.

The American education system is undergoing a massive transformation, despite small changes. Buildings and schoolyards in America’s schools reflect a mentality that originally sought to turn unruly kids into obedient soldiers and factory workers. In the 21st century, more schools are choosing a model that is aligned with contemporary values. While hurdles remain-California, for instance, prohibits schoolchildren from camping in tents big enough to house an entire class because of earthquake risk-this move is welcome news for parents like Nichols, who want to ensure their children are exposed to nature.

Danks said more schools are embracing outdoor learning as the Delta variant of COVID-19 spreads across the nation. School infrastructure investment can benefit schools both now and in the future. Neither this variant nor this crisis are going to be the last.

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