When students return to Augustana University in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, this month, they’ll find a campus transformed by Covid-19. Masks are required outside of dorm rooms; fall sports are delayed.
Many courses will be a hybrid of virtual offerings and in-classroom time. But one professor will be holding class outdoors as long as possible.
“I will be teaching my environmental studies class outside whenever the weather is non-lethal,” said David O’Hara, a professor who is also the university’s director of sustainability.
This isn’t just pandemic thinking on his part. Two years ago, O’Hara worked with students to build the campus’ first outdoor classroom from locally sourced slate, granite and quartzite.
He relishes the chance to use it. “I teach outdoors as often as I can,” he said, pointing to a long tradition of outside learning that includes open-air lectures by Aristotle and other ancient philosophers.
“You remember when you were a student, sitting in a classroom and staring out the window?” O’Hara asked. “I just figured, Let’s go to the other side of the window.”
Now, as educators return to work amid the pandemic, that decision seems prescient.
That’s because scientists believe that transmission of Covid-19 is far less likely outdoors than indoors. Maintaining physical distance can be easier outside, and infected droplets dispel more quickly in fresh air. The sun and wind, studies have suggested, may help reduce the presence of viable viruses on surfaces.
Some educators are asking if bringing students outside is a feasible way to safely hold in-person classes, which the American Academy of Pediatrics said are important for students’ academic progress, mental health, safety and psychosocial development. Even the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has suggested that school administrators consider repurposing outdoor space for teaching.
And while moving classes outdoors might seem intimidating to instructors accustomed to roofs and walls, it’s not exactly uncharted territory. In contexts as varied as O’Hara’s college courses, outdoor “forest preschools” and Waldorf schools, teachers have been exploring the benefits — and the challenges — of outside learning for years. Here’s what these educators have learned.
Getting students and schools equipped for learning outdoors
With Augustana’s home base in South Dakota, O’Hare’s definition of “non-lethal” weather rules out thunderstorms, tornados and temperatures below -20 degrees Fahrenheit. Anything else is fair game, he said, which means proper clothing is essential. He has offered to help students find the coats, hats and gloves they’ll need this winter.
When it comes to outdoor teaching, school clothes are an equity issue, said Sharon Danks, the CEO of Green Schoolyards America. “School districts … need to think about clothing for children so everyone is equally warm and dry when it’s cold and wet,” she said.
The nonprofit Green Schoolyards America is a longtime advocate for adding nature and the outdoors to America’s education system. Before the pandemic, the organization worked with school districts to manage properties for hands-on learning and reducing environmental harms.
“That involves years-long planning,” she said. In June, though, GSA pivoted to providing immediate help for the current crisis, launching the National Covid-19 Outdoor Learning Initiative with strategies and guidance. The initiative’s website cites “the urgent need to reimagine PreK-12 schools in order to safely reopen.”
“It’s more like landscape triage,” she said. “It’s like, What can you add to your grounds the most quickly, the most cheaply, that will produce the most comfortable, welcoming, inviting place for kids to be when schools reopen.”
The group’s outdoor learning summary includes tips on necessary infrastructure, which could include seating on log rounds, hay bales or picnic tables.
Shade, provided by tents, umbrellas or canopies, is another consideration. Instead of projectors and digital devices, classes can make use of sunlight-friendly clipboards and whiteboards. (Downloadable tools for outdoor infrastructure are available on the organization’s website.)
Outdoor classrooms don’t even need to be limited to school property, Danks explained. “If not on your own schoolyard, then perhaps down the street at a park,” she said. “Some cities have already closed streets to have open-air restaurants, and they’re saying, ‘Hmm, maybe we can also do open-air school sites on streets adjacent to our school grounds.’”
While the urgency of outdoor teaching is new, Danks said that many teachers are already familiar with the basic ideas. She estimated that 15% to 20% of schools in the United States already have a garden or some outdoor teaching space. “For them this is a problem of scale,” Danks said. “They have one outdoor classroom and they need 25.”
Waldorf schools have long promoted the value of teaching outdoors, which has helped in transitioning to pandemic plans. Some, such as the nursery through grade 12 Green Meadow Waldorf School in Chestnut Ridge, New York, are now taking classes outdoors as much as possible.
Those without outdoor teaching experience have a bigger transition to make, Danks noted. “It’s more of a conceptual leap into something new.”
But while moving outside to avoid infection is new for this generation of students and teachers, it’s not without precedent.
In the early 20th century, some classes went outside to reduce transmission of tuberculosis, which is spread by airborne droplets containing bacteria. (During the 1918 flu pandemic, many cities simply closed their schools.)
The benefits of outdoor teaching and learning
For teachers and families concerned about the dangers of Covid-19, the benefits of taking classrooms outside are clear.
Even as kids returned to classes across the country, a new report by the American Academy of Pediatrics and the Children’s Hospital Association found that more than 97,000 children in the United States tested positive for Covid-19 over a two-week period in July. Teachers, meanwhile, are so worried about returning to class that some are updating their wills. Keeping kids outside could mitigate the risk of spreading the virus to both students and teachers alike.
And Danks noted that when contrasted with virtual learning, in-person outdoor classes can have an equity benefit. That’s because many children are lacking essential tools such as internet connectivity and digital devices; while vast funding differences exist between schools and even within school programs, classrooms can help to even the playing field.
“Everyone at school has the same resources at their disposal, but at home that’s not the case,” she said.
She also contended that spending time in outdoor classrooms could help heal some of the trauma of the Covid-19 pandemic, which has taken a toll on the mental health of adults and children.
“When they come back to school, if they are outside where there are trees and other plants, there’s a documented therapeutic benefit of landscapes that helps to reduce stress and helps to restore the ability to pay attention,” she said. “There are also physical health benefits for kids to be able to return to school and move around more.”
What about the weather?
Danks’ organization, Green Schoolyards America, is based in Berkeley, California, where residents enjoy the year-round mild temperatures of a Mediterranean climate. (The Greek thinker Aristotle, who founded an entire philosophy school named for the practice of outdoor teaching and conversation, was similarly lucky.)
But advocates insist that successful outdoor classrooms aren’t limited to sunny places.
“I have colleagues in Norway, Sweden and Canada who do this work all year round,” Danks said. “We have partners in our working groups from Vermont and Maine, and other places that have very cold winters. They had been going outside with their school programs year-round in any case, and now they are planning to do more outdoor learning this year.”
At the university level, Augustana’s O’Hara is proving the point with outdoor classes that last all winter, despite months of freezing weather.
“The only hard thing is when you’re not prepared for the weather,” O’Hara said. “But my hope is that students will come out here, enjoy these classes and say ‘Yep, we want more of this.’”
He admires the Norwegian concept of “friluftsliv,” which translates to open-air living, and celebrates the benefits of staying out even when the weather turns harsh.
And it’s not just university students who are able to brave the conditions.
At Burlington Forest Preschool in Burlington, Vermont, there’s a standing waiting list to send the tiniest children into a year-round, outdoor classroom. Concerns about Covid-19 has driven a big spike in new inquiries, said co-founder and teacher Nicole Mandeville, who believes outdoor schools offer a wide range of benefits for kids.
“It really provides children with a greater opportunity for exploring and creativity,” she said. “Children just do better outside, too: I see fewer behavioral issues and fewer injuries than I would see on a stereotypical playground at a school.”
In the summer, kids at Burlington Forest Preschool spend between six and seven hours of each school day outside. On a January day, it could be four hours. Even with temperatures in the single digits and teens, the kids are happy to get out, she said.
“We just really focus on modeling being appreciative and comfortable in all types of weather,” she said. “A lot of kids get the message that if it’s raining, we have to go in, or if it’s cold we don’t go outside.”
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Many people, Mandeville believes, underestimate just how hardy children can be.
“As long as they’re dressed appropriately, they’re happy to be outside as long as we’ll let them be outside,” she noted. “It’s often adults who are the ones who have less comfort with that.”
Jen Rose Smith is a writer based in Vermont. Find her work at jenrosesmith.com, or follow her on Twitter @jenrosesmithvt.