Moving Class Outside: Decades-long Movement Gets Boost from Pandemic

Laura Nikolaides
Feb 16 · 10 min read
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Maria Libby had always wanted to make outdoor education a fundamental part of the school district she runs near Camden, Maine. Libby, a former Outward Bound instructor, had a bounty of outdoor resources in her district, a river, a lake, an ocean, and mountains. Taking advantage of the natural resources in Five Town Community School District, where she has been a superintendent since 2015, made sense. But nothing had moved beyond a discussion with other administrators until COVID-19 hit, she said in an interview.

Now Adirondack chairs dot the grounds at the elementary, middle, and high schools. A nature trail is being built in the woods at the elementary school. Every elementary school student has been given a coat and boots, so they can continue to learn outside in any kind of weather. Science classes take place in the woods behind the middle school. The open campus has been extended to all high school students, with parent permission, meaning students in grades 9–12 can spend time on their own outside during breaks, lunch, and in between classes.

As for 2021 and beyond? A brand-new nature-based preschool will open in the fall. Interpretive signs will be added to the nature trail. The Adirondack chairs will stay. Classes will continue to meet outside with tents set up for May, June, and September (One lesson learned from 2020, October is too windy for tents). And new permanent pavilion structures will be in place in other areas.

Outdoor education in the United States for many years meant you got to attend an outdoor camp for one week during fifth or sixth grade, or take a once-a-year trip to a nature center. In 2005, “nature deficit disorder” entered the US lexicon after Richard Louv released “Last Child in the Woods,” sounding the alarm on the harms of children spending so little time outdoors. Educators began to take note of the academic and behavioral benefits observed in Scandinavian countries that had been applying friluftsliv or “open-air life” to more regular learning in the outdoors since the 1960s and 70s. More recently, educators and city planners began to see greening up schoolyards as a means to improve not only the well-being of children but also their communities and the urban environment, even contributing to climate change mitigation.

But change takes time and school districts can be notoriously slow to adapt. The coronavirus may have just provided an accelerant to the movement.

“There are things that happened this year that normally would have taken years to effect that change,” superintendent Libby said in a phone interview. The urgency to avoid contagion during the pandemic helped overcome some of the usual difficulties in bringing change to a school system, she said, quoting Winston Churchill: “Never waste a good crisis.”

While some environmental education centers around the country have expressed concerns about needing to lay off staff and possibly shut down by the end of this year in response to the pandemic, those schools that had begun to shift their programming find themselves thriving.

“Ten years ago we started to shift our programming away from the check-the-box field trip once a year, to collaborating with teachers intentionally on a weekly basis to get students outdoors,” Amy Butler, Director of Education at the North Branch Nature Center in Montpelier, Vermont, said in an interview. The shift started as an experiment in response to parents and teachers who were noticing what could be described as nature deficit disorder in kids; many of the founding teachers of the outdoor program were kindergarten teachers who observed that a decline in play in the classroom was accompanied by an increase in anxiety and depression in children, shortened attention spans, and a significant lack in social-emotional skills. Having teachers outside with their students more regularly had an immediate positive response, according to Butler. The center she founded at the nature center in Montpelier, Vermont, the Educating Children Outdoors Institute has trained over 100 area teachers to develop not only science lessons, but also literacy, and math lessons for the outdoors.

After the pandemic hit, “we got busier,” Butler said. Instead of working to get outside merely one day a week, teachers are now interested in how to be outside four or five days a week. And more teachers are asking Butler how to teach outside. While many pre-school, kindergarten, first-, and second-grade teachers have adopted nature-based education as part of their practice, the third through sixth-grade teachers had mostly put it off as “we’ll get around to it someday,” according to Butler.

“What’s happened this year, is that the third through sixth-grade cohort are saying ‘can you please help us figure out how to be outside?’” Butler said.

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Simply finding the outdoor space and making sure it is safe is the first step, and Butler has spent a lot of time this year helping teachers and schools do site assessments — evaluating school property, town forests, and parks in the community. There is a difference between simply teaching outside and using a nature-based curriculum, she pointed out, and both have increased this year. But just getting teachers outside doing the former, naturally leads to the latter, Butler said.

“We used to help teachers who were interested in nature-based learning; now it’s backwards…teachers are outside and they are asking for our help to assimilate the outdoors into lessons,” she said.

As a result of the pandemic, Sharon Danks, a city planner and CEO of Green Schoolyards America, in Berkeley, California, has seen a “massive uptick in scale” in her work to improve schoolyards. In May, Danks joined with the Lawrence Hall of Science, the San Mateo County Office of Education, and Ten Strands to co-found the National COVID-19 Outdoor Learning Initiative to support schools and districts in developing outdoor spaces for keeping schools open safely during the pandemic. The response has been staggering. The collaboration grew from the original four organizations to more than 20, and there are 11 working groups that have produced over 100 pages of resource documents, such as suggestions on how to design and set up outdoor classroom spaces. Danks and her collaborators have advised schools and districts located from Maine to Tennessee to Colorado.

The most active working group may be the “early adopters,” a community of practice open to anyone representing a school or district that wants to take learning outside, Danks said. The group meets biweekly to share experiences and is up to 850 members, educators from across the country, with at least 80–100 showing up at any one meeting.

Equity issues are contributing to the urgency to move classrooms outdoors, Danks said. “Online learning is not an equitable solution,” she said, noting that a significant proportion of students across the country lack broadband access, and many students lack an adult in the home during the school day. In-person learning is important for these students but in doing so it is important not to create another inequity, noting that low-income children may lack the winter clothing necessary for outdoor learning.

“We’re suggesting that schools and districts think of taking some of their budgets that they’re spending on outdoor learning infrastructure to be outdoor learning clothing to make sure that everyone has access to the right, warm winter coat and the boots to keep their feet dry,” Danks said.

Standing outside as the students are arriving at the White River Valley Middle School, in Bethel, Vermont, it’s clear that winter gear is important. Principal Owen Bradley made outdoor education a requirement for the first time this year. On this December day, the temperature outside the school is just shy of 30 degrees. It’s 8:30 AM and a group or “pod” of seventh graders are gathering outside in a field, next to a tent and a fireplace, to start the day. Boys are all wearing ski pants, some girls are wearing jeans with rips at the knee, but all are wearing coats, sturdy boots, and masks. I was struck by how calm it felt, how relaxed the kids seemed, even with a reporter hovering nearby.

Mindi Wimett, the math teacher, calls the students together into a circle to discuss the plans. This morning, the 14 students in the pod would be finishing some bridges in the woods. Lindley Brainard, the technical education and woodshop teacher, takes a few volunteers to the shop to cut some wood. The rest of the students discuss what they need, then grab power drills, nails, and boards and walk to a trailhead behind the school.

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Winding up the mountainous trail, large pine trees on either side, we come to a fork in the trail and a hand-made sign, “Please don’t peel the bark”, next to two towering birch trees. We head right and follow a muddy path down to a creek with the beginning of a wooden crossing. The kids lay down their tools and start planning who is going to do what. Next, they take up the power drills and start laying down the boards, careful to measure “two fingers’ length” in between each board.

I asked the girls working on the bridge how they felt about having school outdoors and they surprised me by saying it’s great, as long as it’s winter. “No bees and bugs!” they said. They loved being able to move around and interact with friends, compared to sitting in one spot in the classroom, which is “boring” several told me.

Outdoor education at the White River Valley Middle School used to be something a student could choose if they wanted to, a two-hour elective, once-a-week. But this year it became a requirement for all students attending school in person. Principal Bradley acknowledged it as a “pandemic plus” that he was able to expand outdoor learning this year to a level he had always aspired to attain.

As a result of the pandemic, students at the middle school are on a staggered schedule, spending two full days in the woods, weather permitting, learning from a curriculum they collaborated on developing with teachers. The remaining days they spend learning from a more traditional curriculum in the indoor classroom or remotely.

As part of the outdoor learning, students designed their own benches and campsites with fire pits. Each pod stays together and teachers rotate between the sites. The pod works together on passion projects they developed, such as designing and building an obstacle course, writing and filming a zombie movie, or setting up a treasure hunt. Chores include gathering firewood and fetching water. Safety protocols are key, not only to minimize the risk of COVID-19 spread but because the students use knives and hatchets in their work, Bradley told me in an interview. The immediate impact? Behavior issues have disappeared, he said, so the school no longer needs to hold detention.

Bradley credits the improvement in behavior to the benefit of being outside, but also to the camaraderie that develops within the groups that now stay together all day. I clearly noticed this. I was struck by what I didn’t hear — no bickering over whose turn it was, who’s doing what wrong or right. It was obvious these kids were used to working together; all seem to like each other. It didn’t feel like middle school.

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No doubt David Sobel, an early pioneer in the movement to move learning outdoors, would approve of school at White River Valley Middle School. “I have been saying for the last 20 or 30 years that what we should be doing is flipping camp and school….Take the prototype of camp and use it to consider how you structure school,” he said in a phone interview.

Sobel, professor emeritus, at Antioch University New England, wrote Place Based Education: Connecting Classrooms and Communities in 2003. The impetus for the book came from what he saw happening in Scandinavian countries, where outdoor learning became part of the fabric of school in the 1960s and 1970s.

There is now ample research demonstrating that outdoor education can boost academic learning and personal development, according to researchers from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and the University of Minnesota, who undertook an international academic review of the research in 2019.

“Report after report — from independent observers as well as participants themselves — indicate shifts in perseverance, problem-solving, critical thinking, leadership, teamwork, and resilience,” the researchers said.

The evidence was particularly strong that nature-based instruction outperforms traditional instruction, they said. “Nature may promote learning by improving learners’ attention, levels of stress, self-discipline, interest, and enjoyment in learning, and physical activity and fitness. Nature also appears to provide a calmer, quieter, safer context for learning,” they concluded.

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In the US, the movement had already been gaining steam pre-pandemic according to Sobel. “It was moving quickly from ‘Ok we are going to do this with kindergarten kids to we’re going to do this with… first through sixth grades, or we are going to do this as a whole school, more of the time, not just one day a week. So we were already at that moment in lots of isolated, unique situations.” But 2020/2021 has hastened the trend. “The pandemic essentially turbocharged that movement,” he said.

There may be no going back for those introduced to outdoor learning for the first time. Wimett, the math teacher at White River Valley Middle School, hadn’t even considered teaching outside as an option in the past. But now that she’s outside with the students she finds that she loves it, and hopes she can continue. “Kids are happy …If they enjoy coming to school that means they feel safe and they feel a sense of belonging. That’s what matters.” She notes her son, Isaac, a seventh-grader at the school, is much more excited about going to school. She laughs as she tells me, “He says he’s not sure which is better school or the weekends!”

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Laura Nikolaides

Written by

I do some writing and photography but mostly play in the snow.

Educate.

Educate.

Educate magnifies the voices of changemakers in education. We empower educators to share their stories, ideas, insights, and inspiration. Educate is dedicated to the fusion of research + education policy and practice.

Laura Nikolaides

Written by

I do some writing and photography but mostly play in the snow.

Educate.

Educate.

Educate magnifies the voices of changemakers in education. We empower educators to share their stories, ideas, insights, and inspiration. Educate is dedicated to the fusion of research + education policy and practice.

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