When schools across the country closed their doors and began remote instruction last spring, most of us in education braced for the worst.
We weren’t wrong. The academic, social and health challenges that besieged K-12 students during the pandemic are well-documented and appalling. Students of color and those from low-income families received the least services and experienced devastating inequities.
However, at the beginning of the pandemic, a few schools and districts — which grew to become hundreds — leaned into a simple, elegant but rarely used solution to bring kids back to school: They took learning outside.
Forward-thinking schools from Portland, Maine, to Santa Cruz, California, created outdoor classrooms as a way to safely and cost-effectively bring more kids back to school. After a year of taking outdoor learning to scale, we’re learning what works, what doesn’t and, more importantly, what we should hold onto going forward.
With new investments flowing to districts and schools from the American Rescue Plan and other sources of state and local funding, money is now available to make outdoor classrooms born out of necessity permanent.
Outdoor science and environmental educators have known for decades that children who learn and play outdoors have higher academic achievement, enhanced creativity and better mental and physical health than those who do not.
Even limited outdoor opportunities make a difference. When kids come back into a classroom from outdoor lessons, they are more focused and better able to absorb content, researchers have found.
In addition, we know that distance learning significantly exacerbated preexisting educational inequities. A December 2020 McKinsey study predicted that, by the end of this school year, on average, students of color were likely to be six to 12 months behind on cumulative learning, compared to white students who were likely to be four to eight months behind. All students are suffering, but those with the least academic opportunities prior to the pandemic experienced the most unfinished learning.
Taking classes outside solves multiple health, academic and social challenges. Now is the time to make outdoor learning permanent — and a standard part of every school day — even in non-pandemic times. We believe this is both possible and affordable.
During the last year, even in dense urban environments, many schools found ample opportunities to teach outdoors by taking advantage of playgrounds, parks, recreation centers and parking lots within walking distance.
Like restaurants, many schools shut down surrounding streets to increase their available outdoor space. They inexpensively converted concrete and blacktop into inviting learning environments with awnings, potted plants and simple furniture.
While adding outdoor learning may not have been the perfect solution for every child in every school, it helped thousands of students get back to in-person learning for a fraction of the cost of retrofitting indoor classrooms with Covid safety protocols, even in the snowy Sierra mountains in January.
We also found that educators benefitted as much as students. Many teachers in outdoor classrooms appreciated the lower risk of contracting the virus, the increased professional learning opportunities and the benefits to their personal social-emotional health that this time-tested mode of instruction offers.
Significantly, outdoor learning also gave them a laboratory in which to incorporate science and environmental education into multiple subjects, from math to art, and they saw increased engagement as students reconnected with the natural world. Extensive, free resources from the initiative helped overcome skepticism and build a community of practitioners who now understand and embrace outdoor learning.
While outdoor classrooms proved their worth during Covid, they are at risk of becoming just a footnote to our pandemic story. With the rapid progress of vaccinations and school districts committing to in-person classes this fall, it may be tempting to return to our old (indoor) ways of educating students, with some plexiglass shields and hand sanitizer added in.
We should not. It’s clear that our old ways were not good enough for far too many students, and the unfinished learning and trauma of the past year will take significant time and effort to heal.
As schools struggled to adjust to remote learning and reduced instructional hours, the sciences took a severe drop in learning, with 88 percent of elementary school teachers reporting that they are teaching less science now than they did pre-Covid. And it wasn’t much before: A 2011 study from the University of California, Berkeley, Lawrence Hall of Science, for example, found that only 10 percent of California students had science instruction that “regularly engages them in the practices of science,” while 40 percent of K-5 teachers reported that their students received 60 minutes or less of science instruction per week.
Incorporating outdoor science and environmental education into every school day is a means to change this narrative, once and for all.
Along with its innumerable painful truths, the pandemic has confirmed what outdoor science and environmental educators have known for decades — learning outdoors works. It is not a “nice to have” enrichment or time off from school. It is core to every subject and key to the well-being of every student.
The pandemic has confirmed what outdoor science and environmental educators have known for decades — learning outdoors works.
Outdoor and environmental educators in every community are ready to partner with schools and share proven curriculums to enable teachers to walk their students to classrooms outside.
We now have an opportunity to normalize the best possible learning environments students can have, something we were never able to achieve pre-Covid.
Now is the time to make a permanent change, and take learning outdoors.
Karen Cowe is the CEO of Ten Strands, a California-based nonprofit focused on advancing the environmental literacy of K-12 students. Craig Strang is the associate director for learning and teaching at the Lawrence Hall of Science at the University of California, Berkeley.
This story about outdoor learning was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for Hechinger’s newsletter.