What If Schools Viewed Outdoor Learning as ‘Plan A’?

Teaching and Learning

What If Schools Viewed Outdoor Learning as ‘Plan A’?

By Emily Tate Sullivan     Oct 5, 2020

What If Schools Viewed Outdoor Learning as ‘Plan A’?
A teacher and fifth-grade students demonstrate what outdoor learning looks like in Portland Public Schools in Maine.

This article is part of the collection: What’s the Plan? How K-12 School Districts Are Preparing to Resume and Reopen.

Over the summer, photos began to circulate of children, bundled in warm coats, mittens and thick hats, reading books at their desks, outside, in the New York City winter. And eating lunch at their desks, outside, in the New England winter. And in the Chicago one, too.

The children were coming of age as a deadly epidemic swept through the U.S., and since learning inside was deemed dubious at best, the classroom was moved outdoors, where group gatherings were considered safe.

Open Air Class, Rutherford, NY
An open-air class in Rutherford, N.Y. in 1911. (Library of Congress)

The photos, shot in black and white, are from the early 20th century, and the disease in question was tuberculosis. But to many, the similarities in the situations then and now, more than 100 years later, are undeniable.

Open Air School in South Boston
An open-air class in South Boston, Mass., between 1900 and 1920. (Library of Congress)

So when parents and teachers saw the images, and recalled the way restaurants in their neighborhoods had moved at breakneck speed this summer to shift their dining services outside, they began to ask: Why aren’t we doing this for our schools? What’s stopping us from holding classes outdoors?

The short answer, according to Sharon Danks, the CEO of Green Schoolyards America, is nothing. Neither insufficient money, limited outdoor space, nor inclement weather should stand in the way of a school doing outdoor learning. And she hopes educators and families all across the country will try it and see that for themselves.

In May, as one school year ended and another began to loom large on the horizon, Danks and the leaders of a handful of other outdoor education advocacy groups—Ten Strands, the Lawrence Hall of Science museum in Berkeley, Calif., and the San Mateo County Office of Education—got in touch to see how they could work together to help schools reopen safely—that is, outdoors—in the fall.

For the founding members of the National COVID-19 Outdoor Learning Initiative, as they call their collaboration, this issue felt urgent. It wasn’t just about seizing the moment to push for more and better outdoor education, though they all believe in the physical and psychological health benefits that brings. It was about getting kids back in school, connecting them to the services they need and reuniting them with caring, competent adults.

“The whole motivation for us choosing to go down this road is the massive inequities that have surfaced with distance learning: access to devices, reliable broadband, children in situations not conducive to learning, if it’s hard for parents to be there, or if they even have parents there,” explains Karen Cowe, CEO of Ten Strands, a nonprofit devoted to environmental literacy and education policy. “That was the driver for all of us.”

Claire Latané, an assistant professor of landscape architecture at California State Polytechnic University in Pomona who has been heavily involved in connecting landscape architects with schools for site assessments and planning, says that her own experience as a single working mom in public schools has given her a greater sense of what’s at stake.

“I’m heartbroken for the impossible situation families have been put in, especially families with no resources, going to schools that don’t have the luxury of fancy online learning or giant schoolyards or under-crowded classrooms,” Latané says.

In June, the group mobilized. They created a sort of how-to manual for outdoor learning, detailing everything from campus site assessments and classroom infrastructure to case studies and curriculum. They formed working groups around 10 different topics and began soliciting volunteers to work with schools pro bono to come up with individualized outdoor learning plans given their space and budget constraints.

“We were trying to make sure no one starts from scratch,” Danks says. “It’s crisis response work, and we want everyone to be as efficient and helpful as possible.”

Working Groups
The National COVID-19 Outdoor Learning Initiative's 10 working groups. (Green Schoolyards America)

Starting Somewhere

Danks estimates that, prior to the pandemic, only 15 to 20 percent of schools in the U.S. had any form of outdoor learning, be it a school garden, a wildlife habitat or a monthly class held outside to observe nature at work. For those schools, outdoor learning during COVID-19 is likely a matter of scaling. Maybe they have one classroom available outside but need 25.

Then there are the remaining 80 to 85 percent of schools that have virtually nothing in place outside the walls of the building. These are schools that, for the most part, lean on field trips to provide students with experiential or hands-on learning opportunities.

For the former group, perhaps there will be some instances of teachers using the outdoors in the curriculum and weaving it into the learning process. But for the latter, it will likely mean taking everything that happens inside the classroom and moving it outside. Both are fine choices, and both are going to be taking place this year, Danks says.

As of mid-September, about 250 landscape architects from 31 states, Washington, D.C., and six different countries had volunteered to help schools make use of their outdoor space. At least 135 schools in 26 states and three countries had signed up to get help from those volunteers. And countless others have found the resources available online and gotten to work themselves. The how-to materials are intended to be self-explanatory, Danks notes, and one video her team pushed out has been viewed more than 4,000 times.

When design volunteers from the outdoor learning initiative get matched with a school, they first conduct a site assessment—either via video call, a combination of photos and filled-out forms, or the rare in-person, socially distanced visit. The assessment available on the Green Schoolyards website is incredibly detailed, asking about student accessibility needs, local weather patterns, disruptive noises or odors, safety concerns around the school campus, nearby trees and plants, distance to public restrooms and more. The goal is to learn what school leaders hope their outdoor learning environment can become, and then establish what is feasible.

An important consideration for schools is pricing. Officials at the outdoor learning initiative outline three major spending buckets: a low cost/no cost option, a mid-range option and a longer-term/deep investment.

For the cheapest option, outdoor education advocates recommend using hay bales for seating, separated six feet apart, or calling a local arborist and asking them to donate downed trees—cut into 16-inch stumps and sanded—for kids to use as seats. With either the bales or the stumps, teachers can set them up in a circle and, “Voila! You’ve got an outdoor learning classroom,” says Jennifer Nitzky, a certified arborist and a leader of the initiative’s Northeast region of design volunteers. Throw in clipboards, drawstring bags, notebooks and writing utensils, she adds, and you’re ready to get started.

Naturally, without large tents, awnings or other shade structures, the weather can present some challenges, even if it’s just from a hot sun or gusty winds. But the landscape architects working with schools are helping to determine which sides of the building get shade or block wind and at what times of day.

As for other inclement weather, students can still learn outside through cold temperatures, rain and snow, just like they did during the tuberculosis epidemic of the early 20th century. But it’s up to the schools to determine the threshold at which they will pack it in.

“People immediately jump to, ‘What about the snow? The rain?’” when asking about outdoor learning, Danks says. “The answer for us is, ‘We see this as Plan A.’ Having a tent or rain shelter available makes Plan A available more of the time. But you can go inside—Plan B—when weather comes.”

Anecdotally, she’s heard from schools in Maine that plan to move classes inside when the temperature drops below 10 degrees. Other schools, including some in the South, where freezing temperatures are less tolerable, have set the limit at 40 degrees. Still other districts, determined to make this option work year-round, have invested in warm weather gear and waterproof rain suits.

“Schools need to think of clothing as infrastructure. They need to be buying not only tents and seating, but clothing as well,” she says.

Embracing the Outdoors

Brooke Teller was wrapping up a turbulent school year in June when one of the assistant superintendents in her Maine district approached her: Would she be willing to head up a group of teachers to explore the possibility of outdoor learning in the fall?

The idea had first come up last spring, when Portland Public Schools remained closed indefinitely and parents in the district started to realize that this pandemic would be sticking around a while longer.

So Teller, the district’s STEM coordinator and science coach, was tasked with finding out if teachers were open to holding class outdoors. She was also given another title: interim outdoor learning coordinator.

She spoke with educators, parents and community members to get a read on everyone’s appetite for yet another major shift in how teaching and learning were conducted in the district. After moving from traditional classrooms to virtual ones in the spring, were they willing to try something new … again?

At first, there was enough interest that the district began planning for two outdoor classrooms at each of its 16 schools. But by early August, as the new school year approached, and after research came out suggesting that children were more likely to spread the virus than initially understood, many more teachers became emphatic that outdoor learning was their preferred solution to a safe, in-person reopening.

“They were like, ‘Oh, right, I don’t think I want to be inside,’” Teller recalls the teachers saying. She sent around a survey to see who would be open to teaching outside, and 200 of the 250 respondents expressed interest.

That’s when the district’s two-classrooms-per-building plan got “blown up,” as Teller puts it. Volunteers from the nonprofit Portland Society for Architecture agreed to assess the school sites and determine how many outdoor learning spaces each could accommodate. Some could fit a dozen or more, Teller says.

In the middle of August, after a 12-hour virtual meeting that spanned two evenings and was streamed on Facebook Live, the school board approved a hybrid learning model and a start date of Sept. 14. During the in-person instruction days, the district would seek to maximize opportunities for outdoor learning.

While it was the outcome Teller had hoped for, it also “led to a frenzy of figuring out what that looks like,” she says. The district had less than a month to make plans and purchase the equipment needed.

Portland Public Schools is among the dozens of districts in an EdSurge/Social Context Labs analysis of reopening plans that have published details around outdoor learning. Eighty of the 375 in the nationwide sample—or 21 percent—are offering or considering outdoor learning this school year.

This map displays data from an EdSurge/Social Context Labs analysis of public communications from 375 school districts across the country. This map shows the percentage of districts from among the sample in each state with stated policies to encourage, develop or consider use of outdoor space as part of hybrid or in-person attendance structures. (Some states have large percentages of districts that are currently only offering remote learning, and these districts typically have not published policies related to outdoor learning).

The overall sample of 375 districts in the EdSurge/Social Context Labs analysis aims to reflect geographic and socioeconomic diversity, as well as to weight for districts in states with high and low COVID-19 infection rates as of summer 2020. See methodology for this project here.

About 1,000 of the 6,800 students who attend Portland Public Schools opted for the fully virtual instructional option. The 10th through 12th graders are fully remote as well, save for a weekly advisory meeting. That left about 5,000 hybrid learners. Every hybrid class is split into two groups, one of which meets on Mondays and Thursdays and another that meets on Tuesdays and Fridays. Wednesday is reserved for meetings, cleanings and full-time remote learning.

The goal for the district, Teller says, is to hold at least 50 percent of in-person instruction outdoors for those 5,000 hybrid students.

It sounds like a lot, and no doubt it is. But Teller says that teachers told her repeatedly that it was a plan they could “wrap their heads around.”

“We know this is different,” she says. “We are being responsive to folks’ desire to not be in a building, but to be outside where it’s safer. Everything we’re doing is with positive intent. It’s OK if it’s a little raggedy, too. I think the kids are going to be happier outside, and more engaged.”

Outdoor learning may also be the closest solution the district can provide right now that resembles something like normal, even though students are expected to keep their masks on and stay six feet apart while outside.

Outdoor learning at PPS
Fifth-grade students demonstrate what outdoor learning looks like at Portland Public Schools this fall. (Photo provided by PPS)

“I think the biggest hope, and what felt lost in the spring, is those in-person connections between teachers and students,” Teller says. “If being hybrid with half the student population and being outside means being together as long as possible, before we have to go remote, I think this is giving us that opportunity and everyone’s anxiety is lessened.”

Through a combination of CARES Act funding, cash donations to the district and community donations of supplies, Portland Public Schools was able to invest in outdoor education equipment that will last not just through the pandemic, but for years to come, Teller says.

The district is providing each school with supplies for up to 12 outdoor learning sites—so 12 easels, 12 whiteboards and enough stumps, yoga mats or five-gallon buckets (in their respective school colors) to seat students from 12 classes.

Portland Public Schools has also purchased or sourced 5,000 “student learning kits,” which include drawstring bags, clipboards, notebooks and pens. Together, those supplies cost about $20,000. The district is spending another $27,000 to pay the 18 outdoor learning liaisons it has hired to manage materials, sanitize buckets and other supplies and report to Teller.

By far the biggest expense was the 33 fabric shade structures the district purchased from a company in Gorham, Maine, for $70,000 total. Each school building will get two of them, which are not waterproof but can withstand a light rain, Teller says. The structures will come down before the season’s first heavy snow, and should last up to 10 years.

Schools can and have done outdoor learning for next to nothing, Danks reminds, but given all that Portland Public Schools was able to acquire, the combined $120,000 is “incredibly cheap,” she says. “I wouldn’t think it unusual for a school district to spend $5,000 per outdoor classroom.”

Two weeks into the school year, the shade structures are expected to go up soon and outdoor learning is happening almost every day. And teachers are already finding ways to weave their surroundings into the curriculum.

A first-grade teacher at Portland’s Longfellow Elementary School wrote to Teller about how the experience is going so far. The students have adapted easily, the teacher said.

“Every morning we check to see if the buckets have condensation or not, and why. We are able to observe nature, especially birds (mostly seagulls and pigeons) who have undoubtedly discovered that we are eating out there,” the teacher wrote. “I thought kids would be a lot more distracted, but I don’t find that. The open air absorbs the noise of talking and teaching, even if classes are nearby. Fresh air seems to help regulate mood and decreases restlessness and boredom. With the exception of one cold day that I was not prepared for, I have really embraced it.”

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