I was recently introduced to a woman who teaches at Randolph School, a K-5 school in upstate New York. When I asked if classes were in person, she said yes, the school was in a good position to defend against coronavirus as all of its classes were outdoors. And, in fact, outdoor activities are generally safer than indoor activities because the virus clears up faster in the open air. This school regularly tests for the virus and positive results are rare.
Because the coronavirus could, in one form or another, be with us for some time, schools in general should explore opportunities for outdoor education. This can be another tactic, along with vaccinations, tests and masks, in an effort to prevent infections.
Long before the coronavirus hit, pioneering educators like Friedrich Froebel, who started the kindergarten movement, and Maria Montessori wanted students to get outside and experience nature. Over the past few decades, a growing body of research evidence suggests that nature enhances child development in at least three ways.
First, natural settings such as parks, ponds, and woods stimulate children’s patient observation skills. Children spend long periods observing birds, plants, insects, fish and small mammals. And time spent in nature often helps children focus on other tasks.
Second, nature promotes creativity. In natural environments, children love to build things like hideouts under trees and model cities out of soft dirt. Additionally, much of their artwork and poetry is inspired by nature.
Third, children often gain a sense of inner peace and of being one with the vast web of life. Children feel anchored in something positive that goes far beyond themselves, and this sense of security helps them withstand the difficulties of the years to come.
Time spent in nature can also benefit academic work. This goes a long way to solving the biggest problem in schooling: the lack of student motivation. Children are usually so captivated by nature that they want to know more. They avidly read books about the animals they see, as well as trees, moving clouds, snowflakes, and other aspects of their surroundings.
They also work enthusiastically on math problems that expand their knowledge of their natural environment. For example, young children enjoy counting different species of trees and measuring their circumference, while middle and high school students enjoy finding ways to estimate the height of very tall trees. If children make vegetable gardens, they carefully map their garden plots, estimate the number of seeds they will need, and weigh their produce.
Schools interested in pursuing outdoor education will need to plan and experiment based on their individual circumstances. Suffolk County schools generally have access to more outdoor space and vegetation than inner city schools. But even where greenery is limited, birds and other animals visit schoolyards and, like wind, shadows and other natural events, animals attract considerable interest.
Outdoor education is much more common in Europe than in the United States. “Forest kindergartens”, which began in Denmark in 1952 and cater for children aged 3 to 6, are quite widespread there.
Outdoor education will meet with some resistance in the United States, especially from those who fear exposing children to all kinds of weather. Schools will need to experiment with outdoor classes gradually, giving children and adults time to see what they can handle. Schools may also use lean-tos or partially open tents to protect against certain weather conditions. Many schools may find that a partial rather than full outdoor education suits them better.
Despite the challenges created by the harsh climate, it also offers opportunities for enjoyable activities. In the fall and winter, the children at Randolph School enjoy heating food over open fires. Young children find it exciting to write in the morning frost that covers the outdoor tables. Recently, students discovered that they could write notes with magic markers on ice sheets. In February, students bleed trees for syrup and learn a lot about trees.
Schools that want to experiment with outdoor education can discover activities that have worked for others. Two of the urban schools that like to take their students out for long periods of time are Central Park East in Manhattan and the Brooklyn Free School.
I hope American schools will give outdoor classes a serious try. The end result could be safer schools and more enthusiastic learners.
William Crain is professor emeritus of psychology at the City College of New York and a part-time resident of Montauk. His latest book is “Forever Young: How Six Great Individuals Have Drawn Upon the Powers of Childhood and How We Can Follow Their Lead”.