School

Is Outdoor School a Viable Option This Fall?

Three experts weigh in.

A desk under a tree near a squirrel on top of an open book.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Getty Images Plus.

This article is part of Open Book, a Slate series about the new school year.

As American schools struggle with the impossible task of deciding whether and how to reopen in the middle of a mostly uncontrolled pandemic, some districts are considering moving class outside. As the New York Times noted in a piece published last month, the concept of outdoor classrooms has a long history, and research-tested benefits: increased attention spans, better academic attainment. Some studies even argue that being outside is good for kids’ mental health—something that will be particularly important for children returning to schools in a climate of uncertainty, after going through the weirdest collective half-year most living Americans have ever experienced.

Advocates who’ve long encouraged schools to think about outdoor learning are seizing the moment. The organization Green Schoolyards America has put together working groups on topics like infrastructure, community engagement, health and safety, and equity for K–12 schools and districts thinking through their options. When they held a webinar in June to discuss the idea, more than 1,000 people signed up. The group is also connecting volunteer landscape architects with schools trying to think through how outdoor school would look, given their current facilities. And in the world of early childhood education, some forest schools—preschools held partially, or completely, outdoors, like those rugged Danes and Germans do it—are reporting high demand for their limited spots.

Still, the idea of rapidly scaling up outdoor classrooms to serve a large number of students has struck some onlookers as an impossibility. While an occasional lesson conducted on the lawn feels like a lark, relying on outdoor classrooms as instructional Plan A feels different. As Olga Khazan recently reported in the Atlantic, there are bureaucratic obstacles to the full implementation of this concept. Do schools—especially urban schools—have enough safe, enclosed outdoor space on their grounds to accommodate large numbers of kids? What would teachers who typically use laptops and smartboards have to do, in order to adjust? And teaching outside doesn’t eliminate the need to shift to smaller class sizes to suppress virus transmission, so schools would still need to hire additional educators, even if they move outside.

The long and short of it is: Even if outdoor education would cheaply and easily solve many problems around ventilation and infection suppression, making it an everyday solution asks a lot of everyone involved—planners, students, administrators, teachers—and will work much better in some climates than others. Educators may wonder: What’s it like to teach outside? Will my kids pay attention? What if a student wanders off and gets lost? What about when it’s hot, or when it rains? How will this even work?

I asked three teachers experienced in taking kids outside for their perspectives. Andra Yeghoian first taught outdoors regularly as a seventh grade English teacher, working at Pleasanton Middle School in the Bay Area. Her classroom came with an outdoor garden space that was neglected and overgrown. “I made the commitment, with my students, that we would do some part of our class outside every Monday and Friday,” she said. As a group, they redid the space, which had a nice big shade tree—“we were really lucky with that.” Sometimes, in the hot heat of the early fall and late spring, being in the outdoor space could be breezier than being inside.

“I was worried about focus, since it was really my first time doing a lot of consistent teaching outdoors,” Yeghoian said. “It turns out I had nothing to worry about. The kids were definitely better focused” in the outdoor space. She mentioned that this worked especially well for the parts of the class where the students connected socially and emotionally, like morning and closing circle. It also proved beneficial during subjects like reading and writing. When they were outdoors, students could find a little space of their own, apart from one another, which allowed them to get in-depth in their thinking. “When we did small group projects, we had great outdoor space” to break out into groups, which seemed to work better than when everybody was tight together inside. Yeghoian is now the environmental literacy and sustainability coordinator for the San Mateo County Office of Education, and is helping schools in that district amp up their existing outdoor education efforts to meet the coronavirus challenge.

I first heard about the idea of outdoor preschool from my sister, Sarah Onion Alford, who runs Gazebo School in York, Maine. Before the pandemic, Gazebo had two fenced play yards and an outdoor “classroom” site in the woods, and the kids spent at least an hour and a half outside every day, even in the Maine winters. Kids came to school with boots, mittens, hats, and everything they’d need to be outdoors. Gazebo has reopened with a smaller enrollment and shorter days this summer; the kids stay outdoors except for bathroom trips (and the occasional morning nap, for the 1-year-olds who still need it).

Maine’s COVID-19 regulations for child care programs, which in the state’s “stage 3” restart phase include recommendations around health screenings, the limitation of shared spaces, and the sanitizing of shared objects, include a recommendation that child care centers move as many activities outside as possible. Alford put hooks into the fencing that encloses the play yard to make spread-out “cubbies” for kids’ personal belongings. When the kids eat, it’s much easier to keep them at a distance from one another than it would be inside, where they’re cheek-by-jowl at their little tables.

Alford is sympathetic to the resistance some teachers of young kids might have to the idea of taking it all outside. An early-childhood teacher is already trying to do so many things at the same time—carry out lesson plans, keep kids physically safe and feeling cared-for, make things fun and interesting. Navigating an outdoor environment in addition to all of that can be challenging. The outdoor preschool teacher taking kids into the forest has to “constantly do headcounts”—Alford retrained her brain to tally up every two to five minutes. But Alford pointed out that “there are very few children in the world who want to get lost”—most have a natural orientation toward their teacher.

Laura White, a fifth grade science teacher at Chesterfield School in New Hampshire, agrees that kids may be more willing to go along with the new rules around outdoor education than some educators fear. Her public elementary school has an unusual setup: In 2017, the town bought 21.7 acres adjacent to the elementary school for students’ educational use. “It’s vastly expanded the places we could go without permission slips, because it’s still school campus,” White said. The school created two outdoor classroom sites with benches built by volunteers, but White points out that for emergency outdoor classrooms created for this fall semester, bulk purchase of a Crazy Creek–style chair for each student to carry from class to class and set up in well-distanced configurations might allow for more flexibility for schools trying to conform to COVID-related health regulations.

As for the weather question—more of an issue in New Hampshire than California, and for middle schoolers trying to write in notebooks than preschoolers mucking about in the mud—“my policy was, I took my class out rain or shine,” White said. “I felt like, if you just set the precedent that ‘we just go out rain or shine,’ kids get used to that and come prepared.” The school set a lower limit on temperature—kids would go out until it was about 15 degrees, factoring in windchill. In New Hampshire, most kids already have snow gear; the school provided some rain gear for backups for kids who might not have it.

White swore that her kids actually loved going out in the rain—“there’s so much stuff you can play with you wouldn’t normally see”—but she teaches science, which is a little different from a class that might be using laptops to free write. Either way, a school putting some classes outside on a pandemic emergency basis would want to have protocols for thunder and rain. If schools pursued a hybrid model—some remote learning, some outdoor learning—they could possibly move a school day online if the weather forecast was prohibitive. “If that [uncertainty] is the price you pay for having the kids in school together some of the days, it seems like maybe it’d be worth it,” White says.

When the new outdoor space became available at Chesterfield School a few years ago, one thing that ironically helped more faculty transition into using it was that the teachers weren’t required to do it. Some enthusiastic early adopters led the charge. Then, when the more reluctant teachers saw what that group of teachers was doing with the space, and how successful it was, their enthusiasm was sparked. White said that her own background in environmental education, and a childhood spent camping and “mucking around in swamps” looking for dragonflies with her dad, may have prepared her better for her new role than many other teachers. But, she said of other teachers’ experiences at her school: “They saw what a wonderful experience it is for the kids, and they totally bought in, from there on out.”

All three teachers I spoke with agreed that administrators providing some professional development for outdoor teaching would be key to making such an initiative a success. But even more than that, they agree that teachers’ buy-in is absolutely essential. “I feel like the question of logistics is a little bit of a misconception” in the conversation about taking classes outside, White said. “I feel like the biggest obstacle is just a paradigm shift, a change in attitude.” White pointed out that there was some precedent for that paradigm shift. Schools took learning completely online in the spring—“the largest, most unprecedented change across the board in education that we’ve ever seen.” Teaching outdoors would bring a different set of challenges, but these are desperate times. As White put it: “In biology, when your environment changes, the organisms that adapt are the ones that survive.”