On the Environment: Learning in the ‘New World

“Perhaps the Department of Education can enrich current proposals by including outdoor learning as part of its reopening recommendations, due not only to COVID-19 concerns but also as part of educational best practices for the future. Outdoor environments provide more engaged learning while supporting physical health and reducing risks of COVID-19 transmission as compared to indoor environments. Districts should be encouraged to utilize both outdoor classrooms and public open space locally….let’s not return to normal when we can reflect on the lessons we’ve learned and use that as the basis of a profound force for change.” ~ Lisa Wolff, Op-Ed: How About Moving Some Classes to the Great Outdoors When Schools Reopen? NJ Spotlight, June 4, 2020 

As the Founder of New Jersey’s first Forest School created eight years ago, I can speak first hand about how we can make a version of this model possible for application in our public schools. I say ‘a version,’ because what Forest School is for us at Painted Oak Nature School, might not work for every school culture. We take our 2 – 8 year-old wildlings out on the trails, through the meadows, and over creeks in search of slugs, salamanders, wood sorrel, and chickadees five days a week, four hours a morning, ten months a year. The children gain independence by gearing up for the elements and carrying their own packs with everything they need for the morning. They gain resilience by learning to get up and move, find the sun, drink warm tea, or head for the fire pit on days of extreme cold. They learn risk management by testing physical limits. And this doesn’t begin to acknowledge all of the academic learning they acquire through inquiry, researching their interests, and developing daily questions. This is the ‘version’ of learning we are talking about here for our public school comrades – taking classes outside, for health, fresh air, the ability to socialize safely, and to redefine what a classroom environment can look like, feel like, sound like and even smell like. 

Now, some folks might be reading this and thinking, “yea, but…” So let’s discuss some of these hesitations as we consider the possibility of more outside time for our learners in this new COVID-context. 

1) “This sounds great on a lovely Fall or Spring day, without rain clouds on the horizon or snow under foot. How can this work when the weather isn’t conducive to learning outside?” 

In order to support learning outside for a sustained period of time (1+ hour) two key elements are needed: a sheltered space and proper gear. For shelter, all that is truly needed is a dry place to retreat for cover to get out from the raindrops and blowing wind. This can be as simple as a parachute cover strung between a few trees with logs underneath for seating, or it could be as advanced as a constructed gazebo. For the students to be able to read and write outside, a dry covered space is imperative. And if walls can be included, then more warmth will be generated. 

In regard to gear, this can be a bit more complicated depending on the financial strength of your school budget and your school community. A few considerations that may make providing gear for your students more possible include: grants, donations, and sponsorships. The basic gear elements that each child would need are a durable rain coat and a pair of muckboots; that’s really it! We wouldn’t be talking about having students outside for hours and hours, so really what would be required would be a jacket with a hood to keep dry, plenty of layers underneath for warmth (thermals, extra shirts, or sweaters) that they would have on anyway in the winter, and boots to keep feet dry.

Presuming that the shelter would provide seating to keep students off the ground, the gear to support sustained outdoor learning can be relatively minimal. A central gear storage area could be organized where students can ‘check out’ gear to borrow for the period of time that they are outside. Think about a bowling alley, or a ski slope – with multiple sizes and sets available, this type of system would allow multiple classes to be outside learning without placing a financial burden on your families to provide the gear. 

2) “How will we keep the children safe if the area is not fenced in?” 

Many teachers and staff think about taking groups of children outside and have visions of them running away or not staying with the group. This is typically because the only time that we ‘allow children out’ during their school day is recess. Recess is a wild time because it is the only unstructured time children have over the course of a 6-hour day, and in many cases, even recess is structured these days – blacktop only on wet days, specific rules around equipment use, etc. By imparting so many rules on the children, of course it will be their natural tendency to rebel. 

Instead, if we normalize being outside, these ‘wild behaviors’ will diminish. Schools can start by looking at what indoor routines can be taken outside; for example: morning circle, shared reading, writers workshop, a math lesson that encourages the use of natural materials as manipulatives (dandelions, acorns, rocks for counters,) and certainly science. Then begin to look at what specials classes can be taken outside – P.E. is a natural choice, but how about plein air painting outside the four walls of the Art Studio, music in wide open spaces, Library under the trees…The more frequently that the children see the outdoors as an extension of their classroom, the less of an inclination they will have to run wild. 

3) “What about ticks?” 

With a few more precautions, such as removing invasive plants like Japanese Barberry, which harbors ticks, planting other plants that are natural deterrents of ticks and mosquitoes such as lavender, sage, and mint, and by educating children about what ticks look like so they can be avoided, this risk can greatly reduced. 

4) “This sounds lovely for preschoolers, but how about for high schoolers?” 

Our motto at Painted Oak is anything that can be done inside can be modified to happen outside. Yes, of course it takes a bit more planning, but start small. Plan for one class a day to happen outside as suggested above. Then little by little, as confidence grows, take more out. Anything from a Kindergarten guided reading lesson to a High School physics lesson can be applied outside. You may even find the children more attentive, more engaged, and better able to apply the lesson to the world around them. 

5) “We need nature teachers who can lead groups outside.” 

Learning outside (and teaching outside) is healthier for everyone! By providing the structure and supports necessary to sustain learning outside (as stated in #1 and #2) any adult can take children outside and have it be a positive experience. Again, anything that can be done inside, can be done outside – it just takes a little creativity. 

Change is hard. Not everyone has the energy to look at how things can be different, can be better. We have enough history, resources, and research to provide support for taking students outside more frequently. This is good practice always, but especially as we reformat our approach to learning in a global pandemic. Again, we are not talking about a sudden change from a predominantly indoor-based education model to one where our children and teachers are now spending six hours a day outside. There is a middle ground. Start small. 

Submitted by Nicole Langdo, Founder of Painted Oak Nature School as a response to Lisa Wolff’s Op-Ed piece encouraging schools to consider the outdoors for learning 

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