2020 is recorded in the history books as a year of deep tragedies, inequalities and heartbreak. We hope we will also remember when the Year of Education peeled away from the four walls of our school buildings and embraced the healthy, fresh air outside.
This year, outdoor learning and leafy school playgrounds reached a turning point when thousands of schools across the country took their chairs, desks, and easels – and tree stumps, straw bales, picnic blankets, and WiFi – outside to study under canopy and leafy trees shady tents.
The national movement to use outdoor learning as a means of reopening schools during the pandemic was led by the National COVID-19 Outdoor Learning Initiative, co-founded by Green Schoolyards America. the Lawrence Hall of Science at the University of California, Berkeley; San Mateo County Education Office; and ten strands. We chose to study outdoors because we knew – and everyone saw this spring – that distance learning massively exacerbated inequalities in our education system.
Ten months after the pandemic, there are still too many students who do not have access to devices, reliable broadband, and who live in home environments that are not conducive to virtual learning. For these students in particular, and for all students in general, we ask school district and site managers to consider using or continuing to use their outdoor areas for study as the risk of virus transmission outdoors is about 20 times lower than in Interiors.
We know from research and experience that expanding the classroom to include outdoor areas, both on and off school premises, will serve academic, health and economic needs – during this pandemic and long after. Spending time outdoors is critical to the mental, physical, and spiritual well-being of students.
Outdoor environments usually have better air quality than indoor environments, and environmental conditions such as wind and sunlight can reduce the amount of virus present and the length of time the virus can remain viable. Outdoor classrooms are also one of the most cost-effective ways to increase school capacity. When schools are able to safely accommodate more students by going outside, the lives of students and families will be less disrupted. Also, if classes are held off-site, schools are more likely to be able to reliably stay open once students return to school.
Our approach is diverse and interdisciplinary. This includes creating resources, frameworks and strategies that will help schools and districts plan their outdoor infrastructure, expand the use of outdoor spaces in nearby parks, consider new staffing models (formal / informal partnerships), and incorporate additional outdoor school programs as Physical education, break and meals. Our resources also provide guidance on engaging the community in the planning process, understanding health issues, influencing local and state policies, and researching funding and economic models.
We started this outdoor learning initiative as a collective impact project and since our launch in early June it has grown faster than any project we’ve worked on before. We are deeply grateful and in awe of everyone who has joined us at how creative people can be when the established approach is not possible. The creative ability of all of us to innovate and adapt has never been more present than during this pandemic. We want to bring this with us when we find ourselves on the other side of this crisis.
The new administration of Biden-Harris speaks of “better dismantling” – a strategic approach based on a United Nations framework aimed at reducing the risk to people in nations and communities following future disasters and shocks. We also see the benefits of this strategic approach in our world. If schools focus on creating environmentally resilient outdoor learning spaces, many of which represent long-term investments and district-wide outdoor education commitments, they can provide children with fairer access to rich learning experiences both during the pandemic and long after.
Every other Tuesday we convene educational institutions that are working to learn outdoors. EdSurge readers are welcome to join us. This free public group is nationally oriented and includes representatives from government agencies; District, District and Site Managers; and community partners. Together, they use the resources that are being developed (before the ink is even dry), share their expertise and challenges – and innovate on behalf of and with teachers and students in their communities. We start telling their stories to inspire and support others. Our case study library is growing, and you can see their work in action here.
In early December, during a call to an independent school in Oakland, Calif., The school principals there announced that they had begun their journey by reviewing early drafts of the resources we published and visiting a more distant local school. Before the pandemic, students at this school mainly studied outdoors during “garden time”. Today, 75 percent of all lessons are held outdoors. The teachers there, who are dedicated to teaching outside, say they don’t see the need to go back to how the class used to be.
During the video call, two third graders showed up with masks on. We asked them what it was like for them to study outside. “Cold”, “fun” and “good” were their answers. We asked what they did when they were cold. “We put on a jacket and move,” they replied.
So there you have it, put on a jacket and get moving, and a whole new way of teaching and learning will open up to you during the pandemic and beyond.
This statement is part of a series of year-end considerations that EdSurge will publish at the end of 2020.