Let’s Expand Outdoor Education

The future of the coronavirus is uncertain, so schools need to keep thinking about ways to deal with it.

So far, efforts have focused on ventilation, vaccinations, testing, and masks.

Another, largely overlooked, tactic is outdoor education.  Outdoor activities are safer than indoor activities because the virus dissipates more rapidly in the open air.

Long before the current pandemic, pioneering educators like Friedrich Froebel and Maria Montessori emphasized the need get children outdoors so they can have contact with nature.

More recently, a growing body of research, including that by Roger Hart and Robin Moore, suggests that contact with nature aids children’s development. It benefits them in at least three ways.

First, nature stimulates children’s powers of patient observation.

In parks and other natural settings, children spend long stretches of time observing birds, insects, plants, and small animals. This concentration seems to carry over to unrelated tasks, reducing distractibility.

Second, natural settings foster creative activities, as when children construct shelters and forts under large bushes.

Moreover, nature inspires much of their artwork and poetry.

Third, natural settings instill feelings of peace and belonging to the larger web of life.

Children sense that they are part of something positive that is much larger than themselves.

Some people call this a spiritual feeling.  Whatever it is called, it provides children with strength to cope with the troubles that may come in the years ahead.

Children also frequently work with enthusiasm on academic tasks that help them learn about their natural world.

They want to read about the animals and plant life they have observed first-hand.

They also eagerly work on math problems like measuring the circumferences of trees and estimating the number of seeds needed for a garden.

In Europe, outdoor schools are widespread, especially for 3-to- 6-year-olds.

Many schools hold classes entirely outdoors.  Schools in the U.S. haven’t been as daring.

Adults worry about children being outside in all kinds of weather.

Many schools may wish to explore outdoor education gradually, seeing what children and adults can manage.

I am most familiar with outdoor education at the Randolph School, a private pre-k to grade 5 school in Wappingers Falls, NY.

In its rural environment, classes are held outdoors throughout the school year.

The students, to be sure, go indoors to use bathrooms, and they gather under lean-to’s in some weather conditions.

But otherwise, they are outdoors, even in the winter.

In fact, on cold days children love activities like cooking over an open fire and writing words in the morning frost that covers outdoor tables.

They recently have discovered that magic markers will write on sheets of ice.

Outdoor education presents a special challenge to inner-city schools, where open space and greenery is limited.

These schools might need to make frequent trips to parks.

But even on urban schoolyards, children can observe birds, squirrels, and other animals.

And these animals, along with the wind, clouds, and other aspects of nature, make for interesting study.

I hope schools everywhere will explore outdoor education.

It can produce safer schools and inspire enthusiastic learners.


Guest Contributor

Bill Crain is professor emeritus of psychology at The City College of New York and the author, most recently, of Forever Young: How Six Great Individuals Have Drawn upon the Powers of Childhood and How We Can Follow Their Lead. Dr. Crain is a member of the DEY National Advisory Board.