I’ve always been a nature lover — in fact, I’m planning this episode from my front porch! But when COVID started, nature became an even more essential part of my mental health. Being outside for at least a short time period every day, no matter what the weather, helped me feel like the walls were no longer closing in.
The outdoors are a reminder of things bigger than myself, bigger than what’s happening on the internet, bigger than the problems people create and perpetuate. Nature is a reminder that some things have been here long before me and will be here long after, and that consistency has a stabilizing, grounding presence in my life.
It’s made me happy to see a renewed interest since COVID in the great outdoors, and folks who are tired of being cooped up and having limited travel options look for places they can go without huge crowds.
And that’s made me think: What if this is the perfect time to normalize outdoor learning and make it a permanent part of how we do school?
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The history of outdoor learning and open-air schooling
During the tuberculosis scare at the start of the last century and into the 1918 Pandemic, many U.S. schools began holding classes outdoors. It was the start of an “open air schooling” movement.
Classroom on a ferry, NY, 1915
Image via Library of Congress
An open-air school in the Netherlands (Wikimedia Commons).
Note the sleeping-bag type of material students wear to stay warm.
(If you’re as fascinated by this as I am, check out these 1918 photographs of Michigan students learning with the windows open in the winter, and the “open air” schools movement from that decade.)
My mind has been envisioning possibilities here for months: what exactly would outdoor learning look like in this century? How can we make this happen even in urban areas with less access to nature?
Benefits of outdoor learning
I’ve long been watching the Danish forest schools, in which children spent large blocks of time each day learning through play outdoors. The forest school model has spread to other countries, as well.
And, a new study was released a few months ago from Finland, where daycares built backyard forests for children and it changed the kids’ immune systems, with increased T-cells and other important immune markers in their blood within 28 days.
The research about the benefits of outdoor learning for children proves all my assumptions correct: time spent outside benefits kids academically (even showing improvements in test scores), behaviorally, and even improves health by reducing stress levels.
Making outdoor learning accessible and equitable
And yet throughout the past century, nature-based and outdoor learning models tend to be offered to predominantly to upper-middle class, white students.
So how can we make it more accessible to all students? And what could outdoor learning mean in YOUR classroom?
The very same day I was contemplating a podcast on this topic, not just one, but TWO teachers reached out to me unprompted to tell me that they’ve been teaching outdoors since COVID and are loving it. The best part is that one teaches elementary in Massachusetts and one teaches high school in Texas, so you’re going to get to hear about 2 very different teaching contexts. I want to let you hear them share their experiences, and just let your mind wander to possibilities.
Outdoor learning does not have to be complicated, and you don’t have to have a ton of space!
Students can take their composition books and a pencil outside to even a small area on the lawn or edge of the playground. Students in big cities can sit on the edge of the school’s basketball court or paved playground area when it’s not in use, such as at the very beginning and end of the day, or utilize a nearby public park. I even heard about a school in NYC that repurposed part of the roof for outdoor learning!
If you’re teaching remotely or in a hybrid setting, you may be able to encourage kids to do part of their independent work outside, or assign activities that are done outdoors, such as nature journaling and observation.
If you and your students are anxious to get outside and need a learning environment with a greater sense of wonder and joy, see if the ideas shared here inspire you to take them outdoors.
Case Study #1: Jain, McCallum High School, Austin, Texas
I remember pretty clearly it was October 5th that when our campus had students returning and teachers were required to return. I had this real sense of dread because my son is cared for by four grandparents. And I was just worried sick that I would bring home COVID and give it to my son and that, you know, he could give it to all four of his grandparents before we even knew what had hit us. So I remember having this really, really emotional conversation with my principal about what I could do.
And I remember asking very specifically, “Can I work outside?” And she was like, “Absolutely.”
So the next day I came to work with a blanket and a little table and set myself up. It was still warm in Texas at the time. So I brought bug spray. Mosquitoes were kind of my biggest problem. But I sat under a tree all day and remember thinking that it was really nice— nicer than I expected.
I noticed within the first week an immediate effect on my physical health. I just felt better. And I think it was just that I was getting more fresh air than I had when I was either working at home virtually or before students came back, I was working in the building. And yeah, I think I just noticed an immediate physical improvement in my health. Probably from just fresh air and sunshine.
I mentioned that I brought a blanket and a table. I always tried to make it from my car to my spot in one trip. So I tried to not bring a lot of stuff, and as time went on, I realized that I just needed less stuff.
I found a picnic table that I now sit at and all I really need is my laptop and my notebook and myself, and I can hold class outdoors. So just learning that I need less stuff to be a good teacher or to teach outdoors was a lesson that kind of came over time.
There were moments of downtime where I could lay on my blanket and look up at the tree and, you know, the leaves would be kind of raining down and it would just be this like quiet, magical moment of Zen that I just wouldn’t have had otherwise.
McCallum High eventually fundraised for an outdoor theater, as well.
Another thing is that my battery to my laptop could not last four zoom sessions without a charge. And as everyone knows, it’s more efficient to charge your laptop if you turn it off. So I’ve found that what works best for me logistically, because electricity was really my biggest hurdle that I had to overcome, was that I would turn off my laptop and charge it during lunch. And before that, when I was working at home, it was very typical of me to not take a break and to just sit in front of my screen during lunch and eat or maybe not eat, but working outdoors forced me to take a break that I wouldn’t have otherwise taken. And I got to use that time to stretch or relax, or just walk around. It was an immediate improvement in my emotional health.
One thing I learned from talking with other teachers and doing surveys on our campus was that a lot of teachers were concerned about equitable seating. And this for sure was a big challenge to overcome on our campus. We have picnic tables, but they’re not organized in a classroom configuration. So just getting our resources together and setting things up so that when students are here, that they all have a nice place to sit, that we’re not asking anyone to sit in wet grass. You know, it was actually a pretty easy fix. We also got camping chairs that were donated from our PTA.
Another concern teachers had was distractions from being outdoors like a squirrel or somebody driving by with loud music. And I would just say that from talking with the other teachers that have been outdoors that actually there’s less distractions outdoors. Classrooms are just loud, tight spaces often. And you know, when you have students doing group work, it’s better if they can be separate from each other.
We imagine that there are a lot of opportunities for teachers to take students outside that they just hadn’t considered. For example, we did our PSAT testing outdoors, and I was the bathroom monitor that day, and I couldn’t help but notice that hardly anybody got up to use the bathroom. I think students sometimes use going to the bathroom as just needing a mental break, but definitely the students who were testing outside got the mental break they needed by just looking up hearing the birds around them.
So I asked if I could compare the PSAT scores from the outside students to the inside students because I suspect they might be better, just because being outdoors has this kind of spiritual effect on people where it just decreases your stress. The white noise can be very soothing. So I think tests could easily be taken outdoors. Group work can be taken outdoors, any kind of worksheet activity, especially when the weather’s nice. There’s just so many opportunities to connect students with nature.
It’s really opened our eyes to the possibilities. I would challenge anyone who’s thought about it to just give it a shot. And I would approach it like an experiment, have one class outside and another class inside. And see if you notice any differences behaviorally, because certainly in the peer reviewed literature about this, there isn’t a lot at the high school level. At the elementary level, it shows that students are much more self-regulated after spending time outdoors and have fewer redirects, and perform better on assessments.
It was of those happy examples of COVID you know, pushing us outside of the box, literally in this case, the box of our building and getting us to re-imagine education.
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Case Study #2: Alissa, 1st Grade Teacher at Leverett Elementary School, Leverett, Massachusetts
As with many educators, this has been an incredibly challenging year for me, one where I was trying to teach six-year-olds for multiple hours a day through remote learning. Back in August 2020, when my school was headed back to remote learning, again, I knew I had to find a better solution for the young children who would be in my class.
Last summer, I stumbled on a few things that helped lead me along the path towards trying outdoor education. First, I had recently joined the Inside-Outside: Nature-Based Educators of New England community online, where I read lots of examples about teachers and students working together outside, especially in response to the pandemic.
The Inside-Outside advisory group wrote a position statement on the benefits of outdoor education in response to COVID-19, which inspired me to the possibility of teaching outdoors.
This led me to sign up for a couple of classes in the Nature-Based Early Childhood Education program at Antioch University. Doing this helped me find other outdoor educators who were also making this happen.
I went back to my school and talked to the kindergarten teacher. We were both facing the same challenges trying to do remote school with young children, and our students were scheduled to be the first to return to in-person learning.
We were trying to prepare our classrooms to implement safety protocols that needed to be put in place — handwashing, mask-wearing, and physical distancing — we knew life in the classroom just wouldn’t be the same as we were used to.
This seemed like a good time to give outdoor classrooms a try. And that’s how the idea for outdoor classrooms at our school was born.
The first thing we did was go to administration and PTO to see if we had their support for this idea, knowing it would take resources we did not have. They were enthusiastic and encouraged us to go for it.
Then we reached out to other teachers in our school for ideas, and a small group of us surveyed our school campus to identify places that could be used for outdoor classroom space. Luckily, our school is in a rural area, and it is surrounded by green space.
So some areas already existed: a greenhouse, a circle of stones near the playground, a courtyard that offered protective walls, and a forest with trails that bordered the school property. Some of these spaces wouldn’t need much to become usable workspaces.
25 tree stumps wheelbarrowed to the site provide seating in “The Clearing”
“The Greenhouse” for cold and rainy days: garden beds are covered with plywood for student work spaces
We brainstormed ideas of what we would ideally like to see in each space based on models of other outdoor classrooms we had seen. Then we came up with a wishlist and sent it out to the school community.
Slowly, donations started pouring in: whiteboards, mulch, tree stumps, hammocks, tarps, down blankets, and so much more. The community was excited. People we didn’t even know were offering their support.
We set a date for a Community Work Day just one week after K-1 students had returned to school and hoped people would show up to help us build these outdoor spaces.
Once the day arrived, we were ready. We identified six spaces on the school campus that we wanted to turn into outdoor classrooms. We made a list of what we would like to see happen in each one and gathered all the supplies we would need. Rakes, shovels, wheelbarrows, tarps, and ropes.
Slowly, cars started arriving to help. Teachers, parents, grandparents, our current and former principal, community members. They all showed up. They wanted to help. We led them around to each of our worksites and explained our hopes for the day. Then everyone got to work.
- In The Greenhouse, we covered garden beds with plywood so kids could use them as work surfaces in a protected space on cold days.
- All around a play structure we called The Fort; we hung tarps, hammocks and put up mini tents so kids could have individual spaces for reading and conferencing with teachers.
- In The Circle of Stones on the playground, we raked mulch and moved tree stumps to define a clear learning space and hung a whiteboard between two trees to use during lessons.
- In The Clearing, we used a wheelbarrow to roll 25 tree stumps across the entire school property and then pushed them down a huge hill to create a classroom space in the woods right next to the stream.
- On Kindergarten Hill, we hung a huge tarp and a whiteboard so kids would have a protected area to work, play and sled in the winter.
- In The Courtyard, we put up a tent and set up chairs to create easy access to outdoor space from inside the school building.
By the end of the day, we had six outdoor classrooms ready to be used by teachers and students.
I have to admit that one of the best parts of the day wasn’t just creating these classrooms. It was the community spirit that made it happen. People coming out to work alongside each other (at a distance!) to create safe learning spaces for our students was remarkable. Coming together to contribute towards a shared effort made us feel hopeful and purposeful again.
At first, I turned to the idea of outdoor classrooms for practical reasons. I wanted to find a way to get my young students away from the screens and back together at school in the safest way possible during a pandemic. I knew that is what they needed — socially, emotionally, and academically.
Since then, my perspective has grown to see the many advantages of outdoor learning other than just having good ventilation.
- We just finished a unit on winter tree identification, studying the features of all the trees on our playground.
- The kids are writing in their nature journals about what they see, think, and wonder about outside.
- In math, we’re learning how to count groups of tens, so one day the kids ran into the woods and worked in teams to collect 100 sticks in about 10 minutes. They were so proud of themselves.
- Our read alouds sometimes take place under a canopy of tall pine trees.
The school’s outdoor environment feels like the setting for a storybook or an epic adventure, which really motivates my students to learn and explore.
These spaces have always been there. It just took a pandemic for us to look outside and discover them. I am so grateful the pandemic led me to search for safe learning spaces outside. I discovered natural resources all around our school, ripe with learning experiences that give kids the freedom to dive into project-based learning connected to our local natural resources.
As one of my students said to me one day, “Sometimes you need to look for beautiful things in the most bizarre places.”
Want to get started with outdoor learning at your school?
Here’s one possible approach that keeps things simple:
- Approach like-minded colleagues to brainstorm possible outdoor spaces and logistics.
- Bring your ideas to school administrators, and troubleshoot any obstacles.
- Solicit family and community support (permission, outdoor work days, donation requests, etc.).
- Create and widely share a schedule with colleagues for using the outdoor space(s).
- How kids benefit from playing in nature
- What if schools viewed outdoor learning as Plan A?
- National Covid-19 Outdoor Learning Initiative’s library of resources
- The Institute for Outdoor Learning