Outdoor Classrooms: In the forest and on the street

Outdoor Classrooms: In the forest and on the street

How often did you take your students outside last year? In April 2019, we polled our Idea Lab Educator Advisory. The most prevalent answer: Once a week. Fast-forward to today and the answer is sure to be different!

Outdoor transmission of COVID-19 is known to be much lower than when indoors. Reopening guidelines from the Center for Disease Control (CDC), American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) and in Canada, the Government of Canada and The Hospital for Sick Children (SickKids) include recommendations for students and teachers to spend more time outside for all subjects.

What are school districts recommending?

Most states and provinces are leaving how schools reopen, including time spent outdoors, to the school district to determine. There are some examples of specific recommendations, one coming from Nova Scotia, Canada. It suggests that early childhood educators spend at least 40% of the day outdoors and for all other grades, phys ed should be given priority for the use of outdoor spaces.


Outdoor classrooms in a natural environment

A hundred years ago, outdoor classrooms were used as a solution to reduce the spread of germs during the 1918 flu pandemic and have been used in parts of Europe for decades. Closer to home, many communities are expanding their use of outdoor classrooms, regardless of season to connect students with nature and to physically distance students.

Waldkitas or “forest kindergartens” were first introduced in Denmark in the early 1950s and Germany officially recognized it as a form of daycare in 1993. By 2005, there were over 400 and by 2017, 1500 forest kindergartens were in operation. These pre-schools do not teach math or science, but instead allow children to play in a natural environment.

In Canada, First Nations communities have been providing land-based learning for years that has included subjects like math, science and chemistry. Lessons in medicine picking, survival skills and hide scraping incorporate these subjects without the need of a textbook. In response to COVID-19, many First Nations communities are expanding their land-based programs as part of their reopening plans.


Popup outdoor classrooms in an urban area

Examples of outdoor classrooms situated in a natural environment are fairly easy to envision, but they are not available to all students, particularly in dense urban centers.

We’ve seen the restaurant industry explore outdoor areas by blocking off downtown streets to expand their patios. Schools can work with their local officials to do the same and many cities are relaxing or speeding up their permit process to allow for this. In Brooklyn NY, P.S. 15, Patrick F. Daily, demonstrations are being run on how teachers can use outdoor areas to teach their students ahead of reopening. By wheeling out easels typically used indoors, along with small cushions for students to sit on, a street is converted to circle time.

Tips for urban schools:

  • Map parks in close proximity to schools to help teachers locate them
  • Create staggered schedules for use of outdoor spaces
  • Travel around the community and use a walk as a learning opportunity by observing different businesses, buildings, etc.
  • Incorporate local history while walking in neighborhoods

Dedicated outdoor classrooms on school property

By planning ahead and packing up the right supplies, an outdoor classroom can be just as useful as an indoor one. With help from parents and students, and a little creativity, a corner of the school yard can be converted into a useful and engaging space.

Outdoor spaces photographed during a school visit at Benhurst Primary, UK

Tips for creating an outdoor classroom:

Location:

Are you one of the lucky teachers who has the garbage pickup zone right outside your classroom? Nothing is more fascinating (and distracting) than garbage day. Interesting to your students, but not so great for you!

It goes without saying, choosing a location for an outdoor classroom is important. Avoiding sport fields, parking lots (and garbage pickup zones) helps keep students focused. If possible, look for a spot with shade and if you’re going to put up a structure be sure that you have the permits to go with it.

Whiteboards and storage:

Outdoor classrooms often include raised garden beds and weather tools, but traditional equipment normally used indoors, can be moved outside to aid in lessons. Having an easel with a whiteboard is useful in providing a spot for instructions and discussion.

Loading up a book cart with individual tubs for each student helps avoid the need for students to make trips into the school for materials. Fill them with clipboards, markers, and notebooks.

If you are thinking of using your Copernicus teaching easel or cart outside, be sure to store it indoors at the end of the day.

Using technology outdoors:

Spending time outdoors is often an analog experience, but we’ve also seen teachers use our Tech Tubs® to bring technology outside. Students can use their iPads® and tablets to take pictures and make videos.

Photographed during a school visit at E.K. Powe Elementary School, Durham, NC

 

 

Using an iPad® along with Dewey the Document Camera with a Microscope is an interactive way to get an up-close look at insects, fungus and other living creatures, or record them for later discussion indoors.

Seating:

Having a place for students to sit completes the classroom. Have students carry out their own plastic stools or yoga mats. More permanent seating can be made out of natural materials, like logs and many communities have been resourceful in finding free outlets for lumber, like local arborists.

Check out these DIY seating ideas:

Seats made from buckets

Students can stash their stuff in there too!

DYI cardboard stool

Milk crate stool (more weather resistant)

Hand washing and sanitizing:

Lastly, guidelines recommend students wash or sanitize their hands before entering a school and with the diversity of activities going on outside, there’s a high chance hands will get dirty.

Our new Portable Sinks can be moved outside as needed (store indoors) or our Single Student Hand Sanitizer Station can be placed at entrances. See more sanitizing solutions here.

Here are a few free resources to help inspire you as you create and use your outdoor classroom.

Have fun!


Outdoor Classroom User’s Guide Boston Schoolyard Initiative
A comprehensive guide from setup, including conceptual layouts and a plant list, to structuring lessons by season.


National COVID-19 Outdoor Learning Initiative
Free design plans for outdoor spaces, activity guides,
case studies and more.


Repurposing Your Classroom Equipment
Our free guide with ideas on how to repurpose things you already have.