Angela Ninde stood at a whiteboard to teach a lesson on odd and even numbers. Her students were rolling sets of dice and adding up the totals to understand the number patterns.
It was a typical 5th grade math lesson, but it was taking place over picnic tables in the shade on a mild September day. As students rotated between math stations, they periodically tended to the nearby class gardens and harvested kale and tomatoes, which the class planned to use to make soup the following day. One boy turned on a garden hose to wash the vegetables with gusto, spraying the feet of his nearby classmates, who squealed loudly.
“This is a normal day here,” 10-year-old Bobbi Johnson said wryly, as she examined her wet shoes.
After all, outdoor learning has been a big focus at Centreville Elementary School for years, and has ramped up since the pandemic began. This school year, Ninde will spend the entirety of her 90-minute math block outside every day, barring extreme weather. There are 17 outdoor learning spaces dotting the school’s campus here, and all teachers are encouraged to bring their students outside whenever possible.
“It feels nice,” said Kira Vue, 10, of learning outside. “It’s more wider than the classroom. … You have more air to breathe, and you get to take your mask off.”
As schools struggle to both remain open for in-person learning and keep their students and staff safe from the COVID-19 Delta variant, advocates point to the benefits of holding class outside. The risk of COVID-19 transmission is much lower outdoors, evidence shows, and the setting makes it easier for students to keep distance between them. Many schools that require face coverings—such as Centreville—let students remove their masks when they’re outside.
And at a time when so many students are reeling from trauma and grief caused by the pandemic, being outside has social-emotional benefits, too. Research shows that outdoor classes can increase students’ concentration, bolster engagement, and reduce stress. Teachers report that their students are more focused outside and misbehave less often.
“My problem behaviors disappeared when I went outside,” Ninde said. “Students became calmer, and they were able to listen better outside. … The kids really want to stay outside and learn. There’s a sense of community and ownership.”
Still, there are barriers that prevent some schools from holding classes outdoors. Rain and extreme temperatures can deter classes from going outside. Bureaucratic red tape and backlogs during the ordering process can slow down the creation of outdoor learning spaces. Oftentimes, parents raise money to buy outdoor equipment and volunteer to set up and maintain the spaces and gardens—but not every school has organized parent groups. And in urban areas, some principals are afraid to hold classes outside because of the risk of gun violence.
Even so, interest in outdoor learning among district officials has skyrocketed since the start of the pandemic, said Sharon Danks, the CEO of Green Schoolyards America, a national group that advocates for more outdoor access for students. And that interest has been buoyed by the billions of dollars in federal pandemic relief money that can be used for outdoor learning opportunities.
“This makes [outdoor learning] suddenly affordable to every district that wants to do it,” Danks said.
Setting up outdoor classrooms can be intimidating
In New Mexico, former Education Secretary Ryan Stewart, who left his position last month, told the Associated Press that he pushed for outdoor learning during the pandemic, touting it as a way to safely have class without requiring masks, and offered to fund shade structures, furniture, and staff training. But no superintendents took him up on his offer, he said.
Danks of Green Schoolyards America said recreating the classroom outside can be a “hard leap to make.”
“I think trying anything new is daunting, and trying something new when you’re stressed is extremely complicated,” she said. “For those who see it as something extra, it feels hard to do.”
Administrators may think that the outdoor spaces will only be usable for a few months of the year, before it gets too cold or too hot. But Danks said that as long as students have appropriate outdoor clothing, they can stay outside safely in most conditions. In Portland, Maine, for example, students continued to learn outside throughout the winter last school year, sitting on tree stumps in the snow.
Not all students have the proper winter gear. To avoid inequities, some schools and parent groups purchase coats and boots for kids. Jim Lane, a biology and field ecology and conservation teacher at Mahtomedi High School near Minneapolis, said he raids the “lost and found” bin at the end of every year to create a stockpile of hats, gloves, and blankets students can take outside.
Teachers also worry that students will get distracted by the outdoors. There are more variables outside: For example, Carlotta Moulder, a 2nd grade teacher at Centreville, was having students count by 10 outside when planes flew overhead. “Do you hear the planes?” Moulder asked her students. “They’re going to be loud. When a plane goes off, you’re going to have to yell.” A little later, a truck drove through the parking lot where the kids were sitting, causing them to have to get up and run to the curb.
But educators at Centreville Elementary said there are distractions inside classrooms, too. And some outdoor diversions—like a rabbit hopping out from a nearby bush—can prompt interesting conversations with students. (“Oh my gosh, there’s a rabbit! How can you go on with prime numbers if there’s a rabbit?” Ninde quipped. “But then you get back to work.”)
“A distraction is only a distraction if you let it be one,” said Principal Joshua Douds. “A distraction could very easily be something you can learn from.”
Not all kids love the outdoors. Some of the students at Centreville Elementary told Education Week they’d rather be inside the classroom. It was hot out, they complained, and there were bugs. But other students said they preferred having class outside, where they could take their masks off and run around. And most enjoyed gardening, which one boy described as “real farming.”
Having class outside, 10-year-old Kaitlyn Montminy said, is “less boring.”
‘There are obstacles to doing this in an equitable way’
In the District of Columbia, there has been a push from educators and the D.C. State Board of Education for outdoor classrooms and lunch spaces in order to mitigate the spread of COVID-19. The D.C. mayor invested $9 million in outdoor learning, and so far this school year, $4 million has been allocated to buy outdoor furniture. This investment could allow schools to hold classes outside long after the pandemic ends, advocates say.
“D.C. is incredibly resource-rich, and we have all the pieces to make it happen, including funding, but the devil is in implementation—we need to connect the dots between funding, resources, and school capacity to really get things off the ground,” said Emily Gasoi, the vice president for the D.C. State Board of Education. “I think the pandemic has offered us an opportunity to … think differently about how we educate kids.”
Some schools in the district have already found success with outdoor learning, Gasoi said, and those include schools that serve mostly students from low-income families. However, using outdoor spaces is “more complicated than I think we realized at the system level,” she added. “There are obstacles to doing this in an equitable way, and one of them is feeling safe outside.”
For example, Thurgood Marshall Academy Public Charter High School is near two busy roads and right next to the Anacostia metro station in D.C. There is a steady stream of ambulances and fire trucks going by, said Raymond Weeden, Jr., the school’s executive director, and there are often intoxicated people who walk by the school and yell at students outside. Just recently, during dismissal time, a woman who was overdosing on drugs walked onto campus and passed out in the middle of a bus lane.
“On top of that, at any given moment, there are shots fired,” Weeden said. “My hunch is, knowing what we hear, no one would volunteer to have their classes outside.”
Gasoi, who is a founding member of the city’s Coalition for Equitable Outdoor Education, said there needs to be system-level support for equitable outdoor opportunities and greater collaboration between education leaders, community partners, and school communities. For instance, it might be safer for some schools to hold classes in a public park. And the city could potentially supply security to guard outdoor learning spaces, Gasoi said.
There is a park near Thurgood Marshall Academy—but getting there would require moving high school students around an interstate, Weeden said. Ultimately, he said, while he loves the thought of outdoor learning, it falls below his other priorities.
“I can manage what’s in the building,” he said. “I can’t control things I can’t control.”
Classes can move away from screen time
Teachers say that bringing students outside has brought some much-needed normalcy to pandemic school years. They’re able to safely bypass some of the restrictions that are in place inside the school building, since transmission is so much lower outside.
Joyce Mucher, a kindergarten teacher at rural Penryn Elementary, outside of Sacramento, Calif., was frustrated by the COVID-19 restrictions that stifled interaction and imagination in her classroom. Remote learning was hard enough, but even when her students came back to campus a couple days a week, they weren’t allowed to share materials and still relied heavily on computer screens since half the class was learning at home at any given point.
“For me, that was not right in my soul in terms of what kindergartners needed to be doing,” Mucher said. “There was no way on earth I was going to leave COVID as their memory of what kindergarten was.”
Mucher asked parents to clear out a wooded area close to school to make room for an outdoor learning space. One parent built a small stage for the kids to use, and someone else donated tree stumps where students could sit. The area is surrounded by oak trees, and there’s a creek nearby.
Teachers in older grades use the area for academics, but Mucher’s kindergartners have mostly used it for unstructured play. “In the classroom, there was that buffer of the masks and the screens,” she said. “[Getting outside lets] them interact and play and make eye contact.”
Meanwhile, in Honolulu, Maria Dumas, the coordinator of the English-language learners program at Jefferson Elementary School, raised money to buy seating so she could meet with her students outside. Last year, English-learners did video calls with Dumas from their regular classrooms in order to avoid mixing cohorts of students. It was difficult to capture their attention with the background noises and glitches in the internet connection. And Dumas typically teaches English through “gesturing and having fun with the whole body”—which was difficult to do via a computer screen.
“With non-English speakers, it’s so much better to work with them face to face,” she said. “If we want to build relationships with our students, it’s hard to do that virtually.”
Lane, the high school teacher in Minneapolis, said being outside allows students to process trauma and anxiety. He’s been taking his class outside for years, and former students have told him that they have continued going outside to relieve stress long after passing his class. And throughout the pandemic, outdoor classes have allowed students to take their masks off and not think about COVID-19 for a while.
“It was very dehumanizing to be [inside] and not be able to see their faces,” Lane said. “Outside brought some of that normalcy back. A lot of the anxieties came down. ... The vibe of the class changes.”
A version of this article appeared in the September 22, 2021 edition of Education Week as If Outdoor Learning Is Safer During COVID, Why Aren’t More Schools Doing It?