After all these months, it feels that collectively we’re taking a deep breath and accepting that unfortunately covid is here to stay for the foreseeable future. In some ways that makes the task ahead a little easier, in that most educational institutions, administrators and educators are now working along the same timeline with common goals.
We all want to keep ourselves and each other safe, and from the conversations we’ve been having with parents as well as educators, everyone is concerned in some way; whether it’s about in-person learning safety protocols, the effect of physical distancing on children, the effect of virtual learning on children, and many other concerns in between.
The answer – how about outside learning – seems a plausible response to almost every concern voiced. An article published by Childhood By Nature points out: “Outdoor space allows for social distancing to happen more naturally. It also provides much-needed fresh air and ventilation – Some experts suggest that after the restrictive living conditions our kids have endured for months due to COVID-19, as well as the stressful climate of our society today, being outdoors can provide a much-needed boost to students’ social, emotional, and mental well-being.” Not to mention the same benefits afforded to educators.
“Children will need enhanced access to high-quality play opportunities when they return. This means healthy social interaction, authentic play and a sense of security. They need a safe refuge away from the fears of the world,” – Occupational Therapist and author, Angela Hanscom, wrote in a recent Washington Post piece titled ‘Why Kids shouldn’t be forced to sit at desks all day when schools reopen.’
These areas of discussion around the longterm wellness of students and educators lead to greater support of outside learning because we know that both virtual learning and in-person physically distanced learning spaces, no matter how well thought out and designed, are going to be more restrictive on every level. Green Schoolyards America, an organization that “seeks to transform asphalt-covered school grounds into park-like green spaces that improve children’s well-being, learning, and play while contributing to the ecological health and resilience of our cities”, makes a strong case for why and how the use of outdoor learning can mitigate the negative impacts of COVID-19 on:
- Equity: Not everyone has benefited in the same way from online learning. The children most in need of help tended to be the ones who got it the least, and this trend will continue without serious interventions.
- Learning: Even for those students who successfully made the switch to the online model, disrupted schedules, distractions and the unavailability of face-to-face coaching have adversely affected their learning
- Physical Health: With most of their time spent in front of a computer screen, student stuck at home have had far fewer opportunities for physical fitness than they would have had at school.
- Mental Health: As with the equity issue above, students who most need the structure and caring provided by the adults and their friends at school miss out the most when school is not in session.
- Economic Health: Many parents are unable to work and take care of young children who would otherwise have been in school. This is a significant segment of the population whose financial struggles carry over into the economy at large.
- Education Workforce: The education sector employs many tens of thousands of teachers, administrators and staff. Even though a majority of teachers may be able to retain their jobs until schools reopen, many others not considered “essential” will lose their jobs and contribute to the overall decline of the national economy.
Public school districts are one of the largest landowners in almost every city and town across the United States and around the world. Across the United States, over 98,000 public schools serve more than 50 million pre-kindergarten to 12th grade students every day, and collectively manage an estimated 2 million acres of land. New York City alone has 29.5 million square feet of outdoor yard and physical education spaces at its 1,575 schools. If utilized students can receive the benefits of being outside but still maintain easy access to bathrooms, handwashing stations and cafeterias.
But as noted in the ‘A4LE Outdoor Learning White Paper’ – “Unfortunately, there is nothing bold or creative about throwing kids outside into makeshift classrooms so that they can be taught the same boring content in spaces that are likely to be even more uncomfortable than the prison-like boxes within the school building itself.” A very good point, and one that is at the core of Green Schoolyards work; they are not advocating for more teaching outside, but for more learning, by creating green “naturerich” environments.
Outside classrooms are not a new idea. An in-depth article titled ‘Classrooms without Walls: A Forgotten Age of Open-air Schools’ looked at how ‘in the early 20th century, open air schools became fairly common in Northern Europe, originally designed to prevent and combat the widespread rise of tuberculosis that occurred in the period leading up to the Second World War. Schools were built on the concept that exposure to fresh air, good ventilation and exposure to the outside were paramount! The idea quickly became popular and an open air school movement was introduced for healthy children too, encouraging all students to be outdoors as much as possible. It all started with the creation of the Waldeschule (literally, “forest school”), built in Charlottenburg, Germany in 1904 and designed to provide its students with the most exposure to the sun. Classes were taught in the surrounding forest, which was believed to help build independence and self-esteem in urban youths. Inspired by the forest schools, open air classroom education caught on in other European countries and by 1937, there were 96 open air day schools in operation throughout Britain.’
America was eager to adopt them too and established its first open-air school as early as 1908 in Providence, Rhode Island. They were so sure about its effectiveness to educate, the movement became organised in 1922 when the first International Congress took place in Paris at the initiative of The League for Open Air Education. In the 1930s, classrooms could transform into outdoor terraces with clever sliding doors, retractable roofs and were fitted with easily moveable, lightweight furniture. The unique style of education remained popular until the 1970s. After the introduction of antibiotics and the improvement of social conditions at home, open air schools were needed less and less after World War II and were gradually phased out.’
“The reference above to ‘…were fitted with easily moveable, lightweight furniture’ is of course very interesting to us as an education furniture company whose mission is to make easily movable, durable, sustainable, flexible furniture with the direct purpose of creating adaptable classrooms. We realize the vision of adaptability and inside/outside learning was actually being carried out decades ago. It makes so much sense, and yet here we are in the 21st century having conversations about whether learning outside could be an answer to a present day virus.
Maybe in this new era if we intentionally create outside learning opportunities that last – “This can be the real and lasting legacy that future generations of children living healthy, balanced lives and fully enjoying the outdoors will remember when they look back at the COVID-19 pandemic of 2020.” – ‘A4LE Outdoor Learning White Paper’