Outdoor classrooms should outlast COVID

Being in nature seemed to help my students focus. A growing body of research validates the benefits of outdoor learning.

First Person is where Chalkbeat features personal essays by educators, students, parents, and others thinking and writing about public education.

For me, the smiles in back-to-school photos felt extra forced this year.

How can I hold in one hand dystopian headlines about schools — closures for excessive heat, dilapidated buildings with dangerous indoor air quality, shortages of school-based mental health professionals, a worsening mental health emergency — and, in the other, the promise and excitement of a new year of learning?

I offer one common sense proposal to help. I “discovered” it as a teacher in 2011. Many educators deployed it in fall 2020. But it’s hardly new. It was apparent even in the early 20th century.

Teach students outdoors.

Becca Katz (Courtesy photo)

I credit my old high school Spanish classroom for my discovery. It was located in a repurposed strip mall in Durango, Colorado, and its storefront window wall had exactly zero windows that opened. I wasn’t supposed to prop the doors due to security risks. The air conditioner didn’t work. August and September temperatures in my classroom hovered in the upper 90s and low 100s. It was unbearable.

We improvised. We spilled out to the parking lot, playing conjugation musical chairs standing on notebook-spots instead of sitting in chairs. We chanted and danced “Pie-pie-pie” (a Spanish-language twist on “head, shoulders, knees, and toes”) in a giant circle. Our paved heat island was better than indoors but still too hot. So we headed to a park a few minutes walk from our sauna.

We held class chasing shade. I got a small whiteboard and filled a cardboard box with dry-erase markers and extra writing utensils. I even started adapting my lessons to the park with fewer papers that could fly around and no screens. This gave way to more movement, flexible group work, and games. My students were super engaged in learning. Outdoors a chattering squirrel allowed for a “brain break” and a new Spanish vocabulary word, “ardilla.” Nature’s distractions almost felt like they helped my students focus. I’ve since discovered research validating that feeling.

Late fall arrived with cooler temperatures. Even though our outdoor classroom was working, and I had over a decade of experience as an outdoor educator, I led us back inside. My students didn’t question it. On autopilot, we marched indoors to be surrounded by classroom creature comforts: whiteboards, dry-erase markers, a sometimes-functional Smartboard, speakers to blast Aventura and Enrique, books, paper, desks, chairs.

Looking back, it feels like malpractice to have led my students back indoors. I faced fewer barriers teaching outdoors than most teachers do, thanks to two decades of experience leading wilderness expeditions and teaching high school students everything from English to natural history to environmental ethics in outdoor classrooms in the Bolivian Andes, the Canadian Arctic, Utah’s canyons, and Colorado’s mountains.

In Durango, a mountain town with a hearty outdoor recreation culture, most parents were happy for us to be outside. My curriculum at a project-based learning charter school was mine to invent. My students and I were insulated from many standardized tests and accountability pressures. We had a great park nearby.

COVID was our national window-walled classroom moment. In fall 2020, many districts, schools, and individual educators across the country took to learning outdoors out of necessity. Green Schoolyards America led a beautiful collective effort to document outdoor learning practices in a National Outdoor Learning Library.

If we can provide 1:1 tablets, surely we can do 1:1 clipboards.

In the fall of 2020, in a different rural Colorado school, we improvised an outdoor school to make in-person learning possible. Students spent full days outdoors alternating with days indoors with their classroom teachers. In November 2022, after that school received a Bright Spot award from Governor Polis for academic growth through the pandemic, I received an email from the principal. Her take? Outdoor school was a causal part of their success.

The evidence for learning in nature is compelling, robust, and growing. Reduced stress. Improved attention and cognitive function. More physical fitness. Fewer behavioral challenges. Higher engagement. Enhanced cooperation. Better relationships among students and between teachers and students. It even has promising potential as an equity lever.

But I fear the autopilot response that drove my students and me indoors is happening across our country post-pandemic. As we’ve returned to “normal,” we’ve forgotten the immediate benefits of learning outdoors.

I know the magical combination of favorable conditions I faced is far from the reality for most teachers. I also know widespread adoption of learning outdoors in nearby nature is simple and could happen almost overnight in schools with access to green spaces. In those schools, let’s build educator capacity to teach students outdoors. Let’s purchase the requisite resources to support outdoor classrooms. If we can provide 1:1 tablets, surely we can do 1:1 clipboards plus a class wagon, or “go-bin,” with writing utensils, foam sit spots, and a portable whiteboard.

Next, let’s retool or develop from scratch school systems to integrate and support teaching and learning outdoors. While we’re at it, let’s mobilize parents and community members as extra hands who can carry materials, help students cross busy roads, and share what they know about local flora and fauna. Just like that, outdoor learning can generate positive sentiment about what’s happening in (and outside of) school.

For some schools, the solutions are less immediate. Excessive heat. Poor outdoor air quality. Gun violence. Concrete as far as the eye can see. These are real issues that must be addressed. For these schools, let’s do two things. First, let’s immediately infuse the indoor environment with nature to create verdant learning spaces filled with plants (real or fake!), nature imagery, nature soundscapes, and nature objects, like pinecones, seeds, and shells.

In parallel, let’s do the longer work to ensure these schools have safe, nearby nature spaces.

Because back to school should mean back outside for all.

Becca Katz has been a teacher, administrator, and wilderness expedition leader in public and private schools, teaching in indoor, outdoor, and backcountry classrooms. Now, she writes about mainstreaming nature-based learning on her Substack, Learning, by Nature. Through her organization Good Natured Learning, she also works to help teachers integrate nature and the outdoors into their routine teaching practices.

Click here to read Becca Katz’s guidance for outdoor learning.