The Great Outdoors: Here’s How Learning Outside Could Become a Lasting Fixture in American Education

An Anser Charter School class gathers on the playground for a group meeting, pre-pandemic. Since COVID-19, the Idaho school has turned its parking lot and playground into outdoor learning areas for every class. (Anser Charter School)

When students at Anser Charter School in Garden City, Idaho returned to in-person classes Sept. 28, everything about school looked different than six months ago.

Anser is an EL Education school, meaning it focuses on learning through projects and expeditions that regularly take students outside the school’s walls. Learning away from the classroom is nothing new for veteran Anser students.

What is new, for at least part of many days, is that the classroom itself will be outside the school walls as well. It’s an accommodation designed to decrease risk of COVID-19 transmission at the 375-student, K-8 school.

“We’ve put together a map where each grade level gets assigned a certain area of the playground or the parking lot,” said Anser Organization Director Heather Dennis. “So teachers know they can take their class outside anytime they want.”

Across the country, schools — some charter, some private, some district-run public — are figuring out ways to minimize the spread of COVID-19. Since studies increasingly show that the virus transmits less readily outdoors than in, creative leaders and teachers are figuring out ways to get their students into the fresh air.

In Denver, one district-run middle school — McAuliffe International — plans to hold classes in event tents when schools resume in-person learning, currently scheduled for late October. “We can safely accommodate 110 students under each canopy — 36 square feet per student,” said Kurt Dennis, McAuliffe’s executive principal. “This will provide us with the equivalent of another 12 classrooms and concerns regarding ventilation will not be as much of an issue.”

Seasoned outdoor educators like many Anser teachers in Garden City know from experience that learning outside the classroom poses unique challenges, but also enriches the educational experience for almost all students, if done well.

But a growing number of educators are pushing for more from moving outdoors than just a temporary accommodation. They say the pandemic-caused disruption presents a golden opportunity to shift the dynamic so that spending more time outdoors, learning through experience and in the larger world, becomes a permanent fixture in American education, forever altering how kids learn.

“It’s hard to talk about silver linings in a pandemic that has killed hundreds of thousands of people, but this could be one of them,” said Wendy Wyman, who until this summer served as superintendent of the Lake County School District in the high Rockies of Colorado. “It gives us an opportunity to reflect on our practice and learn. And getting kids outside leads to more active, experiential learning. Most kids thrive on that.”

It’s easy, of course, for teachers, principals, and superintendents practiced in outdoor education to extol its virtues. Planning a shift to the outdoors can be daunting, however, for educators used to the comfortable, controllable confines of a school building.

Bluum, a Boise-based nonprofit that develops new schools and the leaders to run them, interviewed several savvy outdoor educators to gather tips for schools that are pondering a move to more time outside the school walls, even if it’s only for the short term. They stressed that whether the school is urban, suburban, or rural; private, public or public charter, best practices remain the same.

Here are four key takeaways:

Managing risk

First, make sure everyone feels safe. Increase everyone’s comfort with the concept of learning outdoors by involving them in assessing and managing the risks involved. Nate McClennen, head of innovation at the independent Teton Science Schools in Idaho and Wyoming, said his school focuses intensively on risk management. Teachers and students alike participate. Making sure everyone feels safe is a necessary precondition for a healthy learning environment.

He defined risk management as identifying human and environmental hazards. “The intersection of those two potential hazards is where we have to manage risk,” he said. “It’s important that our teachers feel comfortable whether they are working with students in or out of a building. It entails how you conduct classes outside, how you lead a group when walking down a city street or on a hiking path.”

Be prepared

Second, do the basic preparation of securing supplies and equipment that make learning outdoors possible. Give each student a large clipboard, and equip teachers with handheld white boards. Make sure to buy boosters for WiFi so that the signal reaches the outdoors.

Figure out ways to make students physically comfortable. If an outdoor classroom is on a hard surface, move desks and chairs outside. If it’s on grass or a softer surface, consider buying folding chairs or portable Crazy Creek-style camping chairs.

That’s what the Independent Santa Fe School of Arts and Sciences did for its students. All students from third through eighth grade at the K-8 school got their own Crazy Creek chair, festooned with the student’s name and the school logo. Kids will keep their chairs until they graduate.

“Our students carry those Crazy Creeks into and out of the classroom,” said Principal Todd Stiewing. “We have them set them down socially distanced from each other. It just adds that different quality: ‘OK, now it’s time to do Crazy Creek learning.”

Bundle up

Third, make sure kids have adequate clothing for conditions. “There’s a saying from Sweden that’s there’s no such thing as bad weather, just bad clothes,” said Wyman, whose school district sits at 10,000 feet above sea level. “You can learn outside under almost any conditions with the right clothing.”

In districts like Lake County, where the majority of kids come from low-income households, schools must be prepared to provide warm coats, boots, and snowpants to students whose families can’t afford pricey gear. Lake County schools have access to a grant-funded gear library, but not all schools or districts will be so fortunate.

Establishing relationships with service organizations that can help solicit and manage donations is a viable workaround. Lake County has a close partnership with the local chapter of the Knights of Columbus, which manages a donation program each fall.

In the COVID-19 era, schools will have to provide students with the gear for an extended period, rather than on an as-needed basis. Otherwise, the necessity of laundering outerwear will become burdensome.

Screen break

Fourth, even if a school or district is forced by circumstances into extended periods of remote learning, educators can and should have most lessons include an outdoor component. Every educator interviewed for this article stressed that as kids spend more learning time in front of screens at home, the need to get them outdoors becomes increasingly important.

“The rewards from getting outdoors, for fulfilling the human need to be outside, can’t be overstated,” said Michelle Dunstan, Anser Charter School’s education director. “Even if it’s just sitting in the grass reading, it’s incredibly important.”

McClennen said his Teton Science Schools always have stressed what he called place-based learning. This means, under normal circumstances, using the community as a classroom. Now, however, a student’s house or apartment and the surrounding area, can be the classroom.

“We are continually preaching that everything we typically do — taking kids outside the classroom and using the community to engage them — should be applicable no matter if you’re online, doing a hybrid version, or on site. You want to make sure learners are experiencing the world around them and not just staring at a screen.”

Finally, schools should be thinking now about how new practices they’ve been forced into by circumstances can create a positive and permanent shift in how they view and structure learning environments and opportunities.

This means “increasing teacher comfort level with having a classroom that can be done anywhere, online, in school, in community,” McClennen said. “We just haven’t trained around that very much. It’s not something that is taught in schools of education. Schools aren’t really set up that way.

“How do we help schools adapt so post-COVID they can use this as a great learning environment? So that there is no fear, no worry, because students and teachers are already well versed in it.”

Making this shift thoughtfully and with adequate preparation is vitally important, because doing it haphazardly risks creating a backlash, said Becca Katz, who runs a grant-funded Lake County Public Health Agency program called Get Outdoors Leadville!

“My hope is that we decide after this pressing need passes that it was worthwhile in and of itself to move learning outdoors,” Katz said. “But that will only happen if teachers have a successful experience. Teachers really need to get the support they need in this area.”

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