It didn’t take a pandemic for Sharon Danks to realize the benefits of outdoor learning.
In fact, she started researching the environmental, physical and mental-health benefits of outdoor learning for more than two decades before founding her nonprofit Green Schoolyards America seven years ago.
Before the pandemic, Danks partnered primarily with individual schools in districts near Berkeley, Calif. where the organization is based.
The pandemic, she said, has only strengthened the case for outdoor learning nationwide, especially given the increasing amount of scientific research suggesting that coronavirus is less hospitable outdoors rather than indoors where air circulation is significantly more limited.
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends that schools “consider using outdoor space, weather-permitting, to enable social distancing.” The agency specifically recommends having lunch outside in place of a communal cafeteria or otherwise eating within classrooms.
Dr. Anthony Fauci, who heads the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, has also urged schools to find ways to offer as many outdoor activities as possible. “Get as much outdoors as you can,” he said in a Facebook FB, -4.09% live event in August. “If you look at the super-spreader events that have occurred, they’re almost always inside.”
The American Academy of Pediatrics echoes Fauci’s views also urging schools to “utilize outdoor spaces when possible.”
Some schools have even built wooden bandstand-like structures in the grounds to provide children with an outdoor spaces.
Weather permitting, others have opted for tents that look more like they’re going to welcome wedding guests instead of children. Another school simply used a circle of tree stumps.
“Nature is something that has been proven to decrease stress levels and, during this pandemic, there has so much stress and trauma,” Danks said. What’s more, not all school buildings have enough space for children to maintain the recommended six feet of social distance.
“Outside not only do you have air that isn’t recirculating, but kids don’t have to stay in assigned seats all day and can actually move around,” she said.
Many schools recognized that back in March when they shifted to virtual instruction and reached out to Danks inquiring about how they too could build outdoor learning environments in preparation for the fall.
The overwhelming amount of inquiries she received led her to partner with three other non-profits to form a National COVID-19 Outdoor Learning Initiative that provides schools with templates for how to construct an outdoor classroom, lesson plans and other tools with the support of more than 400 landscaping, design and educational volunteers.
One problem she noticed: “The bigger the institution, the longer it takes to change direction. Smaller schools such as single-district public schools and independent non-profit private schools are doing this much more quickly because they don’t need to ask for permission.”
Not all school have parent-teacher associations
But school size isn’t the only thing holding back schools from building outdoor classrooms in parts of the country where in-person learning is allowed to take place.
For children with special needs, for example, an outdoor learning environment poses a slew of problems, said Mindy Rosier-Rayburn, an elementary special-education science teacher at the Mickey Mantle School based in Harlem, New York.
As of Friday nearly 800 New York City schools were approved to offer outdoor learning. The New York City Department of Education did not respond to MarketWatch’s request for comment regarding efforts to level the playing field for lower income schools who would like to offer outdoor learning, but can’t because they lack the funds to do so.
When New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio gave New York City public schools the
Cara Sclafani, a parent of two children who attend P.S. 185, a New York City public elementary school located on the Upper West Side, has health-related reservations about even sending them back for partial in-person learning certain days each week during the COVID-19 pandemic.
As co-chair of the District 3 Green Schools Group, a coalition of parent volunteers who represent Manhattan’s Upper West Side and parts of Central Harlem, advocating for outdoor education, Sclafani has advocated outdoor learning as much as possible.
Over a year ago, she successfully received two grants from New York City non-profits to transform a deserted lot on school grounds that was “pretty much overrun with weeds,” she said, into a school garden and outdoor learning area.
Last year, she said, it was always a challenge to get teachers to wander outside of the classroom “even though we set up this nice area for them with a tree canopy, benches and a reading library.”
And now? “The teachers are going to bring their students outside at least once a day,” Sclafani told MarketWatch. “Whether it’s just to read a book, paint or have physical education outside.”
She considers these types of activities “easy wins” to accomplish. Ultimately, however, she and other members of D3GSG are working on a “long-term vision” of having a long-term “full blown outdoor learning program” by Spring 2021.
Sclafani said she was directly inspired by a Green Schoolyards America workshop she attended in June about constructing an outdoor learning environment. The organization, she said, has helped redesign P.S. 185’s outdoor learning space. She is on the infrastructure team at Green Schoolyards and is helping advise other schools across the county.
”Having outdoor learning at P.S. 185 is one of the reasons I’m sending them back because I know that they’re going to be getting outside every day for at least a couple hours of the day.”
Originally published on MarketWatch