Even before the COVID-19 era, getting children outdoors on a regular basis was recognized as contributing to the students’ mental health, happiness and overall well-being, in addition to high student engagement and test scores, especially as more people live in urban communities.
Now, as communities balance efforts to reduce the spread of COVID-19 and pressures to hold in-person classes, especially for younger students, outdoor learning spaces are getting more attention.
“Get outside as much as possible”
Dr. Anthony Fauci, who heads the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, recently urged school districts reopening for the new academic year to find ways to offer as many outdoor activities as possible, from classes to recess and lunchtime.
“Get as much outdoors as you can. If you look at the superspreader events that have occurred, they’re almost always inside,” said Fauci in a recent Associated Press article.
The National Academies of Sciences Engineering Medicine note that “environmental conditions, such as wind and sunlight, may reduce the amount of virus present on a surface and the length of time the virus can stay viable.”
Recently, New York Public Schools were given the green light to submit plans for holding class outdoors.
Not a New Idea
Using outdoor settings to minimize disease transmission isn’t a new idea. Nearly 65 open-air schools were set up during the Spanish Flu pandemic, using “wearable blankets known as ‘Eskimo sitting bags’” and with heated soapstones placed at students’ feet to overcome the cold New England weather, according to a recent article in the New York Times.
Green School Yards America says setting up an outdoor classroom requires careful planning, including ensuring seating, power supplies, connectivity for electronic devices, access to hand-washing stations and restrooms and ADA accessibility.
5 Considerations to Creating Outdoor Learning Spaces
1. Identify available space. Schoolyards and fields offer proximity, but may be cramped in urban areas where streets and nearby parks may be needed to accommodate students. Existing infrastructure, such as shade from trees or other open-air buildings can also be helpful.
2.Plan for weather. Strategies will vary based on geography. Portable event tents or yurts can provide temporary shelters, augmented by mobile heating units or fans for cooling. Umbrellas and even nearby trees can offer shade from harmful UV rays. For cold-weather climates, ensuring students have adequate gear and a place for kids to warm-up is also key. As the Maine-based Nature Based Consortium put it, “there’s no such thing as bad weather, only inadequate clothing.”
3. Not just a setting. The outdoors doesn’t just have to be where class takes place, it can be part of the lesson plan. Create a writing lesson the draws on the sensory environment, or let students get their hands dirty in a campus garden as they learn about the growing cycle. For that matter, consider using the outdoors in remote learning plans, something that can enable schools to “bring hands-on learning into education” according to Jeanne McCarty, chief executive for Out-Teach is a nonprofit organization based in Washington, D.C., that specializes in training teachers at low-income schools how to use simple outdoor spaces to improve instruction.
4. Social distancing still required. Masks and maintaining 6-feet between students are still important safety measures to reduce the spread of COVID-19. Plan for seating arrangements and class sizes that maintain social distancing.
5. Consider the acoustical environment. Is your outdoor learning space near a busy road, full of rumbling trucks and the occasional siren? Between ambient outdoor sound and social distancing, making sure lessons don’t get lost is crucial. Consider ways to amplify both the teacher and students’ voices so that everyone can hear every word. The Redcat system, for example, is portable and can run on a battery pack, enabling instruction wherever you make your classroom.