If the effects of COVID-19 have created any positive outcomes I think one may be the increase in awareness and uptake of the benefits of outdoor play and learning. Due to the obvious focus on health, safety and physical distancing at the moment this movement is particularly significant and many voices are calling for outdoor classrooms to be a permanent feature of the way we educate going forward.
There are a few things here that I’d like to speak to, sharing my own views and experiences around this. Firstly I’m delighted the objective of the movement, which is to get students and educators outside, is gaining traction in mainstream education. Though the movement is not new, it has deep roots as someone like Sharon Gamson Danks, the founder and executive director of Green Schoolyards America, can attest to. She has been researching and advocating for the importance of green spaces for students, schools and the greater community for many years.
“Green Schoolyards America’s mission is to inspire and enable communities to enrich their school grounds and use them to improve children’s wellbeing, learning and play while contributing to the ecological health and resilience of their cities.”
As more schools consider outdoor spaces as a solution to meet the challenges of physical distancing, they are grappling with the logistics of how to move play and learning outdoors – and how to do so as soon as possible.
It is this jump from intention to implementation that I’d like to speak to. Recently I’ve witnessed leadership teams, through their understandable haste to create outside play and learning opportunities to combat the risk of COVID-19 spreading indoors, try to recreate their internal classrooms outdoors. This is really not necessary.
Not only can this be a large expense, but now schools are investing resources and time into designing and creating outdoor classrooms. You do not have to wait for the perfect play equipment or the perfect space to allow students to learn outdoors. Children (and adults) simply fare better in almost every way when they’re outside. Just go outside. Take your students outside. Find a park to sit in nearby. Use your school’s field or grounds. Children and educators do not need replica classrooms outside in order to thrive. Nature itself is the environment where one can thrive, as it invites more open ended play and learning opportunities that foster creative thinking and problem solving.
What I’m advocating for is schools not being stuck in the idea that they need to invest in new equipment to make the outdoors accessible. There are simple ways to bring the outdoors in, and the inside out. Natural elements can be brought into the classroom, such as pine cones your students can gather, or asking parents to bring in green plants or clippings from their plants to grow and cultivate in the classroom. Then in turn, taking the inside out can be achieved by utilizing old furniture that many schools often have in storage, providing working surfaces when needed and the weather permits. Of course some schools have more facilities and resources than others, and outside space can be at a premium. Yet even in very urban spaces you can consider the proximity to natural spaces nearby like parks.
That’s not to say that creating more green spaces wouldn’t be a fantastic long term vision to work towards, but it is to say that you don’t need to make immediate decisions with large investments right now. Use what you have, use what is around you, and let go of the idea that outdoor learning can only happen in an established space, or that it has to look a certain way in order to spend time learning outside.
Right now, I’m encouraging educators to simply take students outside whenever possible and utilize the unique and natural benefits that experience has to offer for open ended play, and project based learning opportunities. As we look towards the future of education, I am advocating for learning environments to be more seamless, where inside/outside learning are not separate areas but are a continuous space where the benefits of nature can be fully realized wherever you choose to play and learn.