Outdoor Classrooms in the time of a pandemic

Outdoor Classrooms in the time of a pandemic

ASKING THE RIGHT QUESTIONS

In our most recent OL+ post about Planning for the Safe Reopening of Schools, >> we discussed strategies for schools to accommodate students in existing facilities with the limitations of social distancing requirements. These strategies depend upon the amount of space available and the amount of time in a given school day. Given these fixed parameters, schools face the simple question “DO WE HAVE ENOUGH SPACE TO ACCOMMODATE OUR STUDENTS?” If the answer to that question is no, the options are either to hold school through remote learning or a hybrid model. Both of these strategies remove available space from the equation. Unfortunately, it also removes many of the benefits of in-person learning.

What if we are not asking the right question? Instead of starting from the assumption that going back to school means returning to a building, perhaps we should ask ourselves “HOW DO WE TRANSFORM OUR FACILITIES IN ORDER TO ACCOMMODATE ALL OF OUR STUDENTS?”. Building new facilities like our existing buildings is not a feasible starting point given the time and financial resources that would require. But, if we look at our existing schools, maybe there are spaces that we are overlooking.

School design is notorious for being slow to change. We know what works and how to do it, and we repeat this pattern continuously. We make small teaching changes, but they occur within the same facilities. Schools are not set up well for flexible changes. The pandemic, however, has changed the playing field.

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COMPONENTS CRITICAL TO LEARNING

In a recent conversation with Anne Stires, founder of Juniper Hill School in Alna, Maine, we learned the basic requirements for outdoor learning. Those critical components include educational content, a teacher to communicate that content and a safe place for it to occur. Ideally, the environment will be one that encourages learning and the basics for sustaining student safety such as water, food, and shelter. This is a very low bar to set for a learning environment, but it puts the emphasis on the teacher and the content rather than the facility. One critical component of learning that is inherent in our classrooms is the social aspect in which students learn to be part of a social group, our society, and the larger world beyond the walls. In fact, one wonders, “ARE THE WALLS EVEN NECESSARY?” 

 

PLACE-BASED LEARNING

Some schools embraced Place-Based Learning long before the benefits of outdoor learning became a topic of discussion during the pandemic. These schools encourage learning not just in the natural environment, but also from the natural environment. IF LEARNING INVOLVES CONTENT, COMMUNICATION, AND COMMUNITY, DOES IT NEED TO BE CONFINED TO AN INDOOR SPACE?

Juniper Hill School: Read about PLACE BASED EDUCATION at the school  >>
Juniper Hill School:  VIRTUAL OPEN HOUSE tour  >>

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THE BUILDING BLOCKS

Most schools have exterior spaces, whether they are playgrounds, athletic fields, or simply areas of grass. The requirements for a classroom are minimal for a teacher to communicate content to the students. The students need a place to sit, especially if the ground might be wet. Luckily, chairs are often abundantly available in a school or can be substituted with a blanket on the ground. Teachers need a surface to write the content. Luckily, blackboards and whiteboards remain suitable equipment and work just as well outdoors as they do indoors. Protection from the sun or the rain might be necessary, and a tent or other temporary roof structure can be set up almost anywhere.

OL+ Outdoor Classrooms >>
OL+ Outdoor Learning Pavilion At Jackson Grammar School >>

TECHNOLOGY AND OUTDOOR LEARNING

The obvious missing component in this description of a teaching space is technology. We all know that teaching took place for many years without technology, there is no reason it should now keep us from holding classes outdoors. If one were to look at the use of technology over time, including the most recent time period of remote learning, it has allowed students to remove themselves from the classroom entirely. In the remote learning model, we have preserved the content but sacrificed the communication with the teacher and abandoned the social community aspect of learning altogether. Students have never been more alone. Perhaps we need to swing the pendulum back and allow our schools to sacrifice technology for the sake of teacher communication and the preservation of community.

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WHAT WOULD AN OUTDOOR CLASSROOMS LOOK LIKE?

Outdoor classrooms can take many forms, and should in fact be flexible and depend on the particular place. It is not difficult to imagine tents set up on playing fields if sports are not being played. While the weather will always be a concern we should not underestimate the resilience of students and their ability to adapt to the environment.

Historical Precedent: As reported in the NY Times, in the early 20th century classes were held outdoors in order to combat the transmission of tuberculosis. The clothing of the students replaced the walls of the classroom.
NY Times:  Schools Beat Earlier Plagues with Outdoor Classes >> 

Learning from the Ski Industry:  The concept of a “warming hut”, a place where students can go to get snacks and warm themselves, is based on a model used by ski lodges in New England, offering a respite on the coldest days of the winter.

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LOOKING BEYOND CONVENTIONAL APPROACHES TO SCHOOL LEARNING

If schools considered the outdoor space available to them as part of the equation when determining their ability to accommodate students, there is no doubt that more students could return to school. If other public spaces in town were made available to schools, the options could be expanded even further. No one believes that remote learning is a permanent solution to provide education for our students. Even as a temporary solution it is less than ideal. The challenge is to find a solution that provides students with the best parts of their educational experience and can be implemented easily. We might even find additional benefits that we have not yet imagined by thinking outside the box.

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THE NEXT OUTDOOR CLASSROOM DAY IS NOVEMBER 5, 2020

Global Outdoor Classroom Day >>

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LINKS

OL+ Planning for the Safe Reopening of Schools >>
OL+ Outdoor Classrooms >>
Juniper Hill School >>
Juniper Hill VIRTUAL OPEN HOUSE tour
 >>
OL+ Outdoor Learning Pavilion At Jackson Grammar School >>
Outdoor Classroom Day >>
NY Times:  Schools Beat Earlier Plagues with Outdoor Classes >>