The Case for Outdoor School During and After COVID

Girl in outdoor classroom looking joyful

“Ahhh!”, the boy exclaimed as he plopped onto the worn wooden bench. “I’m so relaxed!” The other kids on our short walk felt the same way. We had followed a trail away from school to a small park that usually sits unnoticed and unused. But there, just steps from the school building, the kids smiled more easily and really listened as we stopped to notice the sounds of nature all around us.

Helping kids feel better in mind and body is not the only reason a Green Schoolyards movement is sweeping the U.S. The main idea—especially during the time of COVID-19—is to create more usable space at school rather than to cut back on the time students spend there.  

Schools weren’t built to keep learners six feet apart. In fact, most schools can only accommodate 60% of students safely spaced within the school building, according to the National Council on School Facilities and Cooperative Strategies.

But what about on school grounds? Not just playgrounds, but the space out front, out back, and along each side. Many schools have public parkland directly adjacent.

Being in fresh air greatly lessens the chance of coronavirus transmission. Schools can worry less about indoor ventilation systems. Many studies show, according to the Children and Nature Network, being exposed to nature gives kids a boost—to their spirits, test scores, and graduation rates.

Science-based academic benefits to children of nature exposure

Besides the durability-building social, emotional, and academic benefits, when kids learn together in a physical structure, it’s more equitable. Green Schoolyards America cites new statistics from this past spring, that in some lower income communities, among kids who had devices like Chromebooks and hot spots, only 60% were actually used.

Support From the Top

Dr. Anthony Fauci, the nation’s top infectious disease expert, agrees that having school activities outside the school building helps tamp down virus transmission and says, “Get outdoors as much as you can.” The Centers for Disease Control offers guidance for cleaning in outdoor areas.

The movement gained major cred when the mayor of New York gave every school in the city the green light to consider utilizing school grounds or public areas nearby.  

The American Academy of Pediatrics has come out strongly that it’s best for kids when they can learn together in school. In a webinar hosted by Children and Screens, JAMA Pediatrics Editor, Dimitri Christakis reported that young children, especially, have “very little risk” of contracting the coronavirus. That’s also borne out in a new study. To quell any possible spread, Christakis says, mask wearing, good hand hygiene, and social distancing are needed. That’s all possible when class is outside.

Lots of Options

As for how an outdoor setup could play out, half a class of kids could be outside for half the day, then they could switch for the other half. Individual classes could be held outside, such as library, PE, or science.

Students need to remove their masks when they eat. Why not reduce the risk of spreading the virus by eating lunch in the schoolyard? 

Golestan School is a small private elementary of about 74 kids in El Cerrito, California, not far from Oakland. According to school director Yalda Modabber, in keeping with this summer’s outdoor programs, every class this fall will either be indoor/outdoor in their open-sided school building or entirely outdoors under tents and shading.

But fair weather is not a requirement. 3 hours from the Canadian border, public school teachers in Falmouth, Maine are making plans for outdoor education. You can see them here inside a structure they hope to use as a classroom:

Free Help for Getting Started

Luckily, much of the up-front work has already been done by the National COVID-19 Outdoor Learning Initiative, a months-long effort by hundreds of volunteers including landscape architects and land planners. Information compiled by the Initiative lives on the Green Schoolyards America website. In the words of GSA CEO and founder Sharon Danks, the effort is meant to “help schools and districts create plans to move as many classes and school programs as possible into school grounds and parks.”

The Initiative continues to compile a wealth of helpful resources including a campus grounds assessment tool and a cost estimator.

Because outdoor learning spaces generally require simple materials, such as hay bales for seats and lumber for shelters, costs are typically low. Schools may also be able to tap into pandemic-relief federal funding from the CARES Act. In Falmouth, they used federal money to make “go bags” stocked with essentials like yoga mats for seating (each child uses half) and whiteboard clipboards at a cost of $10-$15 per student.

100 landscape designers around the world are offering free consultations to help schools get started. Find a designer here.

How do parents feel about having their kids learn outside? Questions about cost inevitably arise. But one New York City dad is all-in for outdoor classes, saying it could mean “the difference between life and death.

As for those at Golestan, Modabber told me in an email, “They’re so grateful to have a safe school to send their kids to.”

About the author: Jenifer Joy Madden is a Syracuse University broadcast and digital media adjunct professor, health journalist, and author of How to be a Durable Human: Revive and Thrive in the Digital Age Through the Power of Self-Design.

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