Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, interest in outdoor schools has skyrocketed. Experts agree the risk of transmission is less outdoors. But what are the pros, cons, and the feasibility of outdoor schools in America?

By Wendy Schuman
September 10, 2020
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With the uncertainty of what school will look like for many districts around the country this fall, outdoor school is an appealing option. New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio even unveiled plans to permit public, private, and charter schools to hold outdoor classes saying, "it's great to be outdoors in general, but we know that the disease does not spread the same outdoors."

Experts agree that the risk of viral transmission of COVID-19 is much lower outdoors than indoors—leading to the conclusion that having school outside is safer.

But how practical is it?

What's the Deal With Outdoor Schools in America?

Outdoor classrooms are not new. So-called "forest schools," or waldkitas, have been popular in Europe since the 1950s, starting in Scandinavia, later spreading to other European regions, including the U.K. The first nature-based preschool in the U.S. opened in 1967 in New Canaan, Connecticut. A century ago, open-air classrooms were created to combat disease epidemics like tuberculosis and Spanish flu. By 1920, the U.S. had dozens of "fresh air" schools in 32 states. These were closed when medical discoveries supplanted the outdoor cure.

Even before the coronavirus pandemic, the popularity of outdoor preschools and forest kindergartens was growing, notes Christy Merrick, executive director of Natural Start Alliance, a national association of nature preschools, increasing from a few dozen in 2013 to nearly 600 this year—more than doubling in just the last three years. There are outdoor preschools in nearly every state and many offer full-day and half-day programs, says Merrick. Many are private and require tuition.

Much of the growth, says Merrick, was spurred by frustration from parents that preschools and kindergartens were becoming overly academic. "There was a backlash against standardized testing that put too much pressure on children too early, and an awareness of research showing this kind of learning was detrimental to young children."

Since the pandemic, interest from both parents and educators in outdoor schools has skyrocketed due to health concerns about indoor spaces. "When schools closed, most of the outdoor preschools shut down as well," notes Merrick. "Now we're seeing a lot of programs start to reopen, and we're receiving a lot of email inquiries and calls from people who are interested in starting outdoor programs." Existing programs are also adding age groups and scaling up. "We're inundated with job postings," says Merrick. "A lot of programs are trying to build their capacity really quickly and are hiring."

This increased demand mirrors the experience of the Boston Outdoor Preschool Network (BOPN), a nature-based preschool that opened in fall 2019, just a few months before the pandemic hit. The program, founded by early childhood teachers Sarah Besse, Shela Sinelien, and Sara Murray, is expanding from 19 children last year to 95 children this year—and also has a waiting list. Last year the program was half-day for ages 2.9-6 years. This year it's adding full-day preschool and toddler programs. In addition to the original site at the Arnold Arboretum in Boston, it's adding a second location—the Massachusetts Horticultural Society in Wellesley.

Students learning at the Boston Outdoor Preschool Network.
Courtesy of the Boston Outdoor Preschool Network

Outdoor Schools in the Time of COVID-19

In March, almost all schools and preschools throughout the country—whether indoor or outdoor—shut down due to COVID and moved to online teaching. Now, as nature schools are reopening, they need to follow state, local, and federal coronavirus regulations—such as requiring masks, temperature checks, and periodic COVID-19 tests for teachers.

BOPN, a private nonprofit that hopes to eventually expand to low-income neighborhoods, offered a small summer program where COVID-19 regulations were put in place. "We now have to do more frequent hand-washing than before—upon arrival, before snack, after snack, before pickup, and as needed," says Besse. Adults all wear masks, and children are encouraged to wear them. "It took some time, but the 2- and 3-year-olds got better at keeping them on," she says. "Children ages 4 to 6 didn't have a problem." For social distancing, the children are taught to use "airplane arms" rather than holding hands in morning circle.

Over the summer, the founders hired and trained more staff for the expanded programs, but the ratio of teachers to kids remains 1 to 6. Each class will have two teachers and up to 12 children. "Since we are outdoors, we need to have more teachers per child than indoor programs do to ensure the children's safety," says Besse.

The Pros of Outdoor Classrooms

Aside from the risk of coronavirus transmission being lower outdoors, this type of schooling is also beneficial to child development. Outdoor school is a desirable and well-studied form of education for young children, according to Rachel Larimore, a leader in the nature-based preschool movement and author of Preschool Beyond Walls: Blending Early Childhood Education and Nature-Based Learning. "In addition to the benefits of healthier air, there are all sorts of other benefits of being outside," she says.

Studies show connecting with nature helps children develop socially, intellectually, emotionally, and physically. "In terms of problem-solving with peers, building and creating something together, and connecting to something greater than ourselves, the outdoors is a rich classroom," notes Larimore.

This is something Sinelien and Besse saw firsthand. While teaching in public school, they noticed their young students seemed most engaged, alive, and simply happier when they were outdoors. They did substantial research on outdoor schools and joined forces with Murray, a Montessori teacher with 20 years' experience, who also believes outdoor learning is "the very best way to offer an education to children."

BOPN is a fully outdoor experience where the adults are still in charge and there are boundaries, but the kids have a good amount of control of their day. For example, the program includes a full hour of uninterrupted play so that children develop complex levels of imaginary play. A big part of that is taking advantage of nature, and research shows that nature-based education significantly benefits later learning.

"We're not anti-academic, we just do it differently," says Besse, also the executive director. "When we have a plant sale, for instance, the children plant the seeds, label every plant, write about it, and count up the money—the academics are the tools you need for the plant sale."

Students from the Boston Outdoor Preschool Network during COVID-19.
Courtesy of the Boston Outdoor Preschool Network

The Cons of Outdoor Classrooms

Advocates of outdoor education are enthusiastic, but the reality is it's not that simple and there are a few obstacles to take into account. Aside from different processes needed to get approval for such schooling and the big setback of funding to make it happen, there's also the space issue. Larimore, who consults with K-5 schools on outdoor education, sees challenges in moving an entire school to an outdoor model. Different areas of the country have widely different access to open areas. Suburban schools, especially those with more funding, may have football fields, lawns, and parking lots where tents can be set up.

In rural Vermont, which has fields, forests, and a tradition of outdoor education, some schools will be setting up outdoors most of the time. Initially, public school principal Owen Bradley of the White River Valley Middle School in Bethel, Vermont, optimistically hoped to hold outdoor instruction most days. But as the school year began, it was determined that students have three remote days and two in-person. “On remote days, they attend their more traditional classes,” says Bradley. “These include math, English Language Arts (ELA), science, and social studies.” On other days, students will cycle between indoor and outdoor classes. The 140 students are divided in 10 to 15 person pods with two teachers for learning and meals, limiting contact with other students.

Even in New York City, a school system of more than a million children, Mayor de Blasio recently called for principals to come up with plans to take some classes outdoors, utilizing courtyards, playgrounds, parks, school sports fields, and even closed-off streets. As of September 4, nearly 800 outdoor plans had been approved. Some parents have expressed concerns about kids' safety from crime, and other questions have yet to be resolved before the current September 21 school reopening.

Merrick says cities can also work with environmental education organizations like zoos, aquariums, and nature centers to make the space. But she points out, many are shuttered due to COVID-19. "They can't operate like they normally do, but they have wonderful learning spaces," says Merrick.

And factor in technological issues as schools will need to find ways to avoid glitches in their outdoor classrooms wherever they might be. For example, Holly Rouelle, the principal at South Burlington's Gertrude E. Chamberlin School in South Burlington, Vermont, told local news they boosted Wi-Fi strength to reach their outdoor classrooms under tents.

Another problem? "We still need shelters from all sorts of different weather elements," adds Larimore. Cold weather can be a big issue, but there are ways to work around it. The keys are wearing the right clothes (that can be a barrier for low-income families) and keeping kids moving, says Sinelien, who grew up in Haiti but has gotten used to the cold climate of Boston. "We show parents how to dress the kids in layers and get the clothes they need to keep them warm in winter," she says. "We have extra hand warmers, blankets, and clothing for those really cold days." But shelters against rain and snow need to be factored in, as well as for scorching heat for some areas in the country.

Then there's the question of how the curriculum will be adapted, especially since it would likely become more nature based. "We'll see some schools have the same activities they would do inside that just happen to be outside on the playground," says Larimore. "But then we will see others that take advantage of the opportunity to make nature the center of the curriculum." Most teachers aren't trained this way, she says, but "for those teachers that are willing to go there, to be more child-led and place-based, it's an opportunity. Is it easy? No. But is it worth it? Absolutely."

Despite all the obstacles, Larimore believes with proper funding, creativity, and a shift in thinking, outdoor schools can become a reality for much of the country. This type of schooling can provide much-needed relief during these unprecedented times. "In a time of stress, the open-ended play and wonder that the outdoors provides does return us to joy," says Larimore. "Not to mention the fact that it's healthier right now."

Wendy Schuman writes for national publications on family, education, and social issues. She lives in West Orange, New Jersey.

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