“I will be teaching my environmental studies class outside whenever the weather is non-lethal,” said David O’Hara, a professor who is also the university’s director of sustainability.
He relishes the chance to use it. “I teach outdoors as often as I can,” he said, pointing to a long tradition of outside learning that includes open-air lectures by Aristotle and other ancient philosophers.
“You remember when you were a student, sitting in a classroom and staring out the window?” O’Hara asked. “I just figured, Let’s go to the other side of the window.”
Now, as educators return to work amid the pandemic, that decision seems prescient.
And while moving classes outdoors might seem intimidating to instructors accustomed to roofs and walls, it’s not exactly uncharted territory. In contexts as varied as O’Hara’s college courses, outdoor “forest preschools” and Waldorf schools, teachers have been exploring the benefits — and the challenges — of outside learning for years. Here’s what these educators have learned.
Getting students and schools equipped for learning outdoors
With Augustana’s home base in South Dakota, O’Hare’s definition of “non-lethal” weather rules out thunderstorms, tornados and temperatures below -20 degrees Fahrenheit. Anything else is fair game, he said, which means proper clothing is essential. He has offered to help students find the coats, hats and gloves they’ll need this winter.
When it comes to outdoor teaching, school clothes are an equity issue, said Sharon Danks, the CEO of Green Schoolyards America. “School districts … need to think about clothing for children so everyone is equally warm and dry when it’s cold and wet,” she said.
The nonprofit Green Schoolyards America is a longtime advocate for adding nature and the outdoors to America’s education system. Before the pandemic, the organization worked with school districts to manage properties for hands-on learning and reducing environmental harms.
“It’s more like landscape triage,” she said. “It’s like, What can you add to your grounds the most quickly, the most cheaply, that will produce the most comfortable, welcoming, inviting place for kids to be when schools reopen.”
While the urgency of outdoor teaching is new, Danks said that many teachers are already familiar with the basic ideas. She estimated that 15% to 20% of schools in the United States already have a garden or some outdoor teaching space. “For them this is a problem of scale,” Danks said. “They have one outdoor classroom and they need 25.”
Those without outdoor teaching experience have a bigger transition to make, Danks noted. “It’s more of a conceptual leap into something new.”
The benefits of outdoor teaching and learning
For teachers and families concerned about the dangers of Covid-19, the benefits of taking classrooms outside are clear.
“When they come back to school, if they are outside where there are trees and other plants, there’s a documented therapeutic benefit of landscapes that helps to reduce stress and helps to restore the ability to pay attention,” she said. “There are also physical health benefits for kids to be able to return to school and move around more.”
What about the weather?
But advocates insist that successful outdoor classrooms aren’t limited to sunny places.
“I have colleagues in Norway, Sweden and Canada who do this work all year round,” Danks said. “We have partners in our working groups from Vermont and Maine, and other places that have very cold winters. They had been going outside with their school programs year-round in any case, and now they are planning to do more outdoor learning this year.”
At the university level, Augustana’s O’Hara is proving the point with outdoor classes that last all winter, despite months of freezing weather.
“The only hard thing is when you’re not prepared for the weather,” O’Hara said. “But my hope is that students will come out here, enjoy these classes and say ‘Yep, we want more of this.'”
He admires the Norwegian concept of “friluftsliv,” which translates to open-air living, and celebrates the benefits of staying out even when the weather turns harsh.
And it’s not just university students who are able to brave the conditions.
“It really provides children with a greater opportunity for exploring and creativity,” she said. “Children just do better outside, too: I see fewer behavioral issues and fewer injuries than I would see on a stereotypical playground at a school.”
In the summer, kids at Burlington Forest Preschool spend between six and seven hours of each school day outside. On a January day, it could be four hours. Even with temperatures in the single digits and teens, the kids are happy to get out, she said.
“We just really focus on modeling being appreciative and comfortable in all types of weather,” she said. “A lot of kids get the message that if it’s raining, we have to go in, or if it’s cold we don’t go outside.”
Many people, Mandeville believes, underestimate just how hardy children can be.
“As long as they’re dressed appropriately, they’re happy to be outside as long as we’ll let them be outside,” she noted. “It’s often adults who are the ones who have less comfort with that.”
Jen Rose Smith is a writer based in Vermont. Find her work at jenrosesmith.com, or follow her on Twitter @jenrosesmithvt.