Outdoor learning gains traction as schools get ready to open amid COVID-19

As boards grapple with what classrooms will look like when students return in a few weeks, the outdoors could likely play a big part in the school day.

Advocates urge teachers to take advantage of outside spaces in the fall

Oliver, 9, holds up the spoon he's learning to carve. CBC News has been asked to withhold his last name. (Lisa Xing/CBC)

As school boards grapple with what classrooms will look like when students return in a few weeks, the outdoors could likely play a big part in the school day amid the COVID-19 pandemic. 

Health experts have said the novel coronavirus has less of a chance to spread in outdoor settings, which also allow for easier physical distancing. Combined with concerns around children's safety as they return to classrooms this fall, that has put a spotlight on "forest schools" in which students learn through interaction with nature.

Advocates of the schools have long touted the benefits of children spending more time outside.

"When you walk outdoors, you're interacting with wildlife, with people, with history," said Andrew McMartin, executive director of the Pine Project, which has been operating in the Toronto area for about a decade.

"You're interacting with technology. You're moving your body." 

Andrew McMartin, executive director of the Pine Project, says interest is up this year because of COVID-19. (Lisa Xing/CBC)

McMartin said something as simple as collecting acorns could teach kids to count, and also about biology and ecology because they can be eaten by people and animals.

"The connections are all right here." 

The not-for-profit organization traditionally holds after school, March break and summer programs for kids. 

"We get to go on hikes in the woods. You get to carve cool stuff. I'm making a spoon right now. It's hard, but really fun," said Oliver, a camper who's 9. 

Kids play a game to start their day at the Pine Project's summer camp. (Lisa Xing/CBC)

Now, the Pine Project has received so much interest this school year it has expanded its programming to full days as parents look for solutions amid worries about the pandemic. 

"We're opening up more programs because we're hearing from a lot more people," McMartin said.

For McMartin, the pandemic wasn't his preferred method of drawing more attention to his cause, but he's excited about more parents wanting to get their kids involved. 

"It's building resilience, building physical health, their mental health, creating problem solving skills and positive approaches to facing challenges." 

'Unprecedented times'

For the Forest School Canada, the professional learning arm of the Child and Nature Alliance of Canada, the pandemic provides the perfect opportunity for teachers to explore adapting their lessons to outdoor settings. 

"These really are unprecedented times," said manager Petra Eperjesi, whose organization is based in Ottawa. "It's going to require educators to change the way they teach.

"Why not make that change to include more of the outdoors? Being outside carries mental and emotional benefits. We also see rich learning outcomes." 

Both the Pine Project and Forest School Canada run their own programs and work with school boards and teachers to incorporate more outdoor learning into the curriculum. 

Kids learn about the outdoors through programming by the Pine Project. (Lisa Xing/CBC)

Canada's biggest school board, the Toronto District School Board, has several dedicated Outdoor Education Centres that strive to get students outside while adhering to the Ontario curriculum. 

Its principal, David Hawker-Budlovsky, is now involved in helping teachers incorporate elements of outdoor education into their teaching. He said the school board has created a map listing parks within 100 metres of every TDSB school for teachers as a starting point. 

"It can really happen anywhere," he told CBC's Metro Morning

"It could be as simple as reading a book under a tree or taking a walk through your local community."

That's exactly what Eperjesi is hoping will happen once the school year begins. 

"We're not advocating for everybody to move everything outside," she said, adding it's simply about incorporating more time outside so children can "direct the learning."

"Does that mean that's the only way you'll meet the curriculum? Maybe not, and that's okay." 


Lisa Xing is a senior reporter with CBC News in Toronto. Email her at