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The case for outdoor schooling

When the pandemic hit, I enrolled my daughter in an outdoor learning-focused school. Now I never want to go back.

Third graders attend an outdoor art class at Lyseth Elementary School in Portland, Maine, in November.
Gregory Rec/Portland Press Herald via Getty Images

One brisk day this past November, first graders in my daughter’s school bundled up and headed out for lunch — not to the cafeteria, but instead out the doors and into the school’s backyard. There, seated on upside-down buckets at makeshift wood-plank tables by the school’s garden and chicken coop, kids lowered their masks and nibbled on home lunches and school-provided sandwiches. For recess, they played in the street next to the school, closed to traffic as part of New York’s citywide initiative permitting schools to use outdoor space to help fight the spread of Covid-19.

For my daughter, a chance to interact with her peers after a traumatic and isolating spring has been life-changing. When Covid-19 abruptly shuttered schools across the US last spring, my then 5-year-old was one of millions of students forced to school through Zoom classes.

We were blessed to have high-speed internet and guardians to troubleshoot tech issues, all necessary resources for schooling during Covid-19, yet resources that so many kids lack. Still, my daughter, like so many other young kids, was restless and visibly frustrated by the experience and did not — as her teacher succinctly put it — “do screens.”

So when New York City launched its grand hybrid experiment last fall, allowing all public schools to submit plans for outdoor classrooms using school grounds and nearby streets and parks to allow for pandemic-friendly spacing of students, we eagerly signed our daughter up for in-person learning. Out of the 1,600 public schools in New York City, 826 applied to integrate outdoor learning and 798 were approved — our daughter’s school was not one of them.

Over the summer, I decided to pull my daughter from that school and put her in a progressive public school that emphasizes hands-on learning, to maximize the time she would spend outside as well as learning to care for the school’s farm. Students wear masks at all times, except when they eat — which always happens outdoors unless there is severe or frigid weather. For winter months, the school organized clothing drives so that all students have access to adequate winter clothing.

It hasn’t been a totally smooth ride in NYC’s public school system, but so far there has been no proof of any Covid-19 transmission at my daughter’s new school. She has never been happier, and is learning how to garden and to “take care of the planet” alongside more traditional skills like math and reading. We love her school’s outdoor integration. But it’s made me wonder: Once Covid-19 is no longer a threat, why can’t this model represent the future of education?

Even before the pandemic, I’d been a staunch advocate for outdoor education. As a journalist, I covered Green Schoolyards America, a Berkeley, California-based nonprofit that advocates for policies that favor learning outdoors, and also provides tools and how-to guides for schools that wish to “green” their school grounds, replacing the asphalt with trees, grass, and plants. The case for greening school grounds is rooted in science that shows kids are better able to regulate their emotions when they have access to nature.

“Just looking at trees reduces stress levels and increases our ability to pay attention,” says Sharon Danks, who founded Green Schoolyards America in 2011. Danks cites research by William Sullivan, a professor of landscape architecture at the University of Illinois, that shows schools “with no trees leave test score points on the table.”

Covid-19 has added urgency to a trend that has been taking off around the world, particularly in countries like Scotland, Brazil, and Germany. Scotland requires some outdoor learning in their national curricula, and Berlin has greened the majority of its schoolyards, part of a plan to mitigate stormwater runoff which can cause flooding and pollute local waterways. In 2010, Danks co-founded an international green schoolyard organization called the International School Grounds Alliance, which currently has 80 board members in 27 countries. Swedish preschoolers spend an average of six hours outside during school every day in fair weather, and 90 minutes during the winter.

But the upside of outdoor schooling is not just learning development. There are also broader climate implications — school grounds account for around 2 million acres of land across the States, Danks says — land that, if managed correctly, could be a valuable tool in our efforts to fight climate change. “More people use school land in California every day than visit Yosemite in an entire year, yet we don’t invest in that land in the same way,” says Danks. As with all climate issues, it’s also about equity — lower-income areas tend to have more pavement and less nature and are thus more vulnerable to heat waves and flooding than wealthier zip codes.

Without a coherent national vision for green schools, progress in the US has lagged behind other countries. But as research has shown that ventilation is key to fighting the viral transmission of Covid-19, interest from schools that want to teach outdoors has seen an uptick: Over 1,000 people attended a webinar that Green Schoolyards co-hosted this past June.

Since then, Green Schoolyards has convened a number of working groups devoted to helping schools take learning outdoors. Weather is commonly cited as an issue — it’s too hot in Phoenix, too cold in Minneapolis — but Portland, Maine’s public-school system has successfully opened 156 outdoor classrooms at 17 schools using a chunk of money from the CARES Act stimulus last year. The district ordered hundreds of hats, gloves, snow pants, and fleece to be cut up and used as neck warmers and blankets for cold weather days. Educators there cite an unofficial GSY mantra: There is no bad weather, only bad clothing.

But the case for outdoor schooling extends beyond the pandemic and improved mental health. Here in New York City, 74 percent of the student population qualifies for free or reduced lunch, and one in 10 are homeless — just as in much of the country, with free meals and shelter, schools provide far more than just education. One way to help ensure that schools are to remain open and safe for students and educators alike is to green them, creating safe, outdoor spaces for instruction, meals, or break time.

NYC’s Department of Education has largely left it up to individual schools to draft their own plans, with predictably patchwork results. As a result, it’s hard to know exactly how many schools are offering outdoor instruction and recreation space. Some public schools do not even have their own yards or the ability to close neighboring streets, while a school like my daughter’s has a garden, composting shed, chickens, and the like. The elementary school I attended as a kid, in the West Village, recently installed a green roof, but schools like that are few and far between. One potential solution would be to combine all PTA funds into a single grant to be equitably distributed to schools, to provide for warm clothing, tents, and other supplies that schools need to get kids learning outdoors.

Students from a public elementary school in Chelsea participate in outdoor learning on the High Line in New York City in October.
Noam Galai/Getty Images

There is pushback, too, of course. Hoping that our daughter’s previous school would apply for the outdoor hybrid program, I brought up the idea to our class’s parents. A panicked email from a class parent laid out all the reasons why outdoor learning would be a disaster, citing safety concerns, distractions from New York City’s busy streets, cold weather, and the burden of kids having to carry supplies to and from the building. It wasn’t just parents — teachers had concerns as well, many of them involving issues of practicality and inclement weather. Also, where will the little kids pee, one person asked.

I understand these concerns completely, but also feel that the benefits outweigh the cons. Not only is it far safer in an era of Covid-19 to hold classes outside, but studies show clear mental health benefits when kids spend time outdoors on a regular basis. For safety, at our daughter’s school, parents take turns volunteering for “barricade watch,” to monitor the street where the kids play, and to allow emergency traffic to pass through. (Not all parents have time to do this, of course.)

And if you’re worried about weather: Most classes can still take place indoors during the winter, with plans to take some instruction outside in the spring. No one advocates teaching outside during a major snowstorm — when it’s necessary to teach indoors or remotely, then schools should do just that. But that would be the fallback option as opposed to the default.

Detailed plans and blueprints for schools that want to provide outdoor learning experiences already exist — and at different levels of investment. At a minimum, schools can purchase picnic tables, tents, and sheds to store school supplies.

School systems with larger budgets can remake their school grounds to more closely match Danks’s vision: replacing asphalt with plants and soil and more fully integrating teaching with the natural environment. This plan will not come cheap, but we now know that learning outdoors, in nature, is essential for kids’ social and physical development. With Covid-19 in the mix, the stakes have never been higher. And greening our schoolyards will pay for itself over time in climate benefits, energy costs, and the mental health of our children.

My daughter’s favorite time of day is when she gets to go outside, whether that be to eat lunch, play, or “work” in the garden. And I feel better about sending her to school during this terrible time, knowing she is spending as much of the day getting dirty and learning about the natural world as she is studying the basics of math and reading. But best of all, she comes home excited about school again — and to me that is the greatest gift of all.

Adrienne Day is a freelance writer, editor, and outdoor-education enthusiast. She has contributed to the New York Times, New York magazine, O the Oprah Magazine, Grist, and Entertainment Weekly, and used to be a music journalist until she got too tired to go out after dark.

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