Grade one students sit in applesauce on tree stumps with their hands up to ask a question. Grade 3 students look closely at plants growing in classroom gardens, or spread out in a space filled with sunflowers to read. When the sun goes down, the pupils take refuge under blinds made of boat sails.
It‘s what a school day looks like this year in a Cape Cod community, where every student now spends at least part of the day learning outdoors – at least when the rain stops.
Seeking ways to teach safely during the pandemic, schools across the United States have embraced the idea of outdoor classes, as Americans did during epidemics a century ago.
Efforts to pitch tents in playgrounds and set up offices in parks and car parks have given new life to an outdoor education movement, inspired in part by the Scandinavian “forest schools” where children s. ‘crowd against freezing temperatures for long walks in the snow.
“The outdoors offers a lot more flexibility,” said Sharon Danks, executive director of Green Schoolyards America and coordinator of the National Covid-19 Outdoor Learning Initiative, established in May. “You can have a seating plan six feet apart and have enough room to move around.”
While some educators hesitated over the costs and logistical hurdles, others embraced the idea, with teachers learning carpentry to build their own outdoor classrooms, and parents raising money and hiring local businesses to wood.
“Covid has stepped up the pace of a shift towards better use of the outdoors,” said Maria Libby, the superintendent of the Five Town Community School District in Rockport, Maine, who purchased tents and Adirondack chairs for classrooms. outdoor class.
Here’s a look at four U.S. schools where students learn outdoors, and where at least some parents and teachers are hoping temporary measures could become permanent, as long as the weather is right.
Amy Leonardi envied private schools who seemed to have no problem organizing classes outside. “Montessori, or Waldorf, they’ve been doing this sort of thing for a long time,” she says. “But doing it in the public school system was a bit prohibitive.”
This summer, however, it became clear that outdoor classrooms may be the only way to keep students in school during the pandemic. So Ms. Leonardi, with a child in elementary school and one about to enter, volunteered to lead the district’s outdoor learning project committee.
They spent the summer rethinking the spaces around several school buildings. A community garden, for example, seemed like the perfect place to hold science lessons and take breaks. Then she organized a team to get materials, coordinate construction, and collect donations.
Lori Duerr, the superintendent of Falmouth Public Schools, said the district did not have to spend money on the project because the community had grown. “It’s not just parents,” she says. “It is only members of the community who also step in to help.”
Local lumber companies and landscapers donated stumps for the seats. Families have put in old outdoor gear. And Ms Leonardi gave a group of parents the task of writing thank you notes to contributors.
“He’s a great example for children,” she says. “They benefit from learning in the outdoors – in terms of health, education and mental health – but they also see a whole community coming together for them. It is also a powerful message. “
Long before the coronavirus, professional graffiti artists painted murals on the walls of Essex Street Academy, a public school in Lower Manhattan. The school organized events under the sky. After school, the children would play soccer on a rubber court and shoot hoops on the basketball court.
The roof now also serves as a classroom space.
“We didn’t really have to change anything because it’s technically a schoolyard,” said Wallace Simpson, the school principal. “It is designed to be used.”
New York City, which has a long history of outdoor classes during outbreaks, has approved about 1,100 public school proposals to move students outdoors this fall. Some wanted to close streets or go to parks. The students of Essex Street Academy only had to climb the stairs.
Samaiya Bailey, 17, aged, said she loves the breaks she takes on the roof between classes. There she can see her friends from a safe distance.
“When I see them, I don’t hug them,” she says. “I’m doing that little nudge.”
Like all New Yorkers who stayed in the city this spring during the first months of the pandemic, students remember the overwhelming fear and claustrophobia that plagued their neighborhoods. As the weather turns warm, they wear hoodies and jackets to extend their time on the roof for as long as possible.
“Even though I don’t take off my mask, I am getting some fresh air,” Ms. Bailey said. “I can be more open and spacious, instead of being crammed into this classroom.”
At the start of each school day, Dana Hotho’s students ask: “Where do we learn today?”
It’s a good question. Tuesday and Thursday mornings, Ms. Hotho takes her class from Lakeside Intermediate School to Garvan Woodland Gardens at the University of Arkansas. The program in the botanical garden, developed over the summer by Bruce Orr, an assistant superintendent, serves students from across the district with special needs.
Sometimes Ms. Hotho, her fellow teachers and paraprofessional assistants give lessons at four wrought iron tables. With whiteboards and hand sanitizer, students practice their letters. (One recent week the class focused on the letter H.)
While they are working, she plays silent classical music from a Bluetooth speaker. A peacock named George might be walking around in class.
“It’s just peaceful to have George in your presence,” Mrs. Hotho said, laughing. “I just can’t tell you how wonderful it is.”
Often, however, she uses the outdoor space for activities that would be impossible in a classroom. She weaves counting lessons at socially distant dance parties or sends children on treasure hunts through the gardens.
“Children are learning and they don’t even know they are learning,” Ms. Hotho said. “They just think they’re having a good time.”
The space also helps students with special needs manage and regulate their emotions. When an overstimulated child begins to show signs of collapsing, Ms. Hotho often suggests taking a deep breath.
“When you take a deep breath in the classroom, it’s a different deep breath than when you sit in Garvan Gardens,” Ms. Hotho said.
At Prairie Hill Waldorf School, outside of Milwaukee, students do not use technology in the classroom until college. And even then, they use it sparingly, as part of an educational philosophy developed a century ago in Germany and followed in some private and charter schools in the United States.
“Virtual learning is definitely not a good option for us, so we wanted to come back to school in a safe way,” said Lindsey Earle, a fourth grade teacher at Prairie Hill School, which has about 125 students. students in pre-K to eighth grade.
His idea of how to do this: build a 12-sided outdoor classroom.
Ms. Earle has spent the summer months working alongside parent volunteers to create the space, and the outdoors is easily a part of her lessons in Wisconsin history and geography.
“Much of what we do incorporates the natural world,” Ms. Earle said. “With the geography of Wisconsin, what better way to get out and explore? We are talking about glaciers and landforms left by glaciers. We can even see some of them on our properties. “
Ms Earle has installed a clay wood stove in her classroom, which she hopes will heat the space during the snowy winter months. She is still trying to collect donations for a roof, but a tarp is working at the moment. And it’s not like his 13 students haven’t been out in the cold before, growing up in Wisconsin.
“It feels like we’re camping all day,” she laughs. “With camping, there’s a lot of packaging, a lot of schlepping, a lot of back and forth. It’s trials and tribulations, but in the end, you’re just glad you did.