The future of school may be outdoors, even after the pandemic

COVID-19 is pushing students outside to learn, and some say it could improve education

COVID-19 is pushing students outside to learn, and some say it could improve education

Kids taking part in the summer camp at the Guelph Outdoor School hike a trail. With fresh air recommended as a way to lower the risk of COVID-19 transmission, more parents are seeing the value in outdoor education programs. (Sarah Bridge/CBC)

It's a five-minute walk from the nearest road to the wooden sign that announces the site of the Guelph Outdoor School. There, in a clearing in the woods, is a registration table — the only visible infrastructure.

On a sunny August weekday in Guelph, Ont., dozens of kids find their way down the path, equipped with hats and bug spray — everything they'll need for a full day outdoors. Cohorted into groups of 10, they play games, trek along a series of well-worn paths, study found bird bones, and learn things like how to tell which plant is Queen Anne's lace and which is poisonous water hemlock.

This is summer camp, but the Guelph Outdoor School runs similar programs year-round. In the past the full-day fall and winter programs have been more of a niche attraction, for students aged four to 14 with enough stamina to brave the wilderness in January. Many were homeschooled or had a special arrangement with their regular school to attend once or twice a week.

In 2020, though, with fresh air seen as a way to lower the risk of COVID-19 transmission, more parents are seeing the value in moving their kids outside through programming like this.

"The phone is [ringing] off the hook and I can't even keep track," said Chris Green, a former classroom teacher who started the outdoor school eight years ago.

He and his team have added seven new programs this year, all of which have been filling up. They've also partnered with a local Montessori school to offer a full-time option, where around 30 kids, split into two groups, will spend half the day in a classroom and the other half outdoors.

"For me, it's always made sense to have kids outside," Green said. "And now it makes double the sense, because it has now shifted from an educational and developmental initiative, to a kind of preventative public health initiative."

Kids at the Guelph Outdoor School admire a view during a hike. (David Common/CBC)

Even those who were already converts to the school's philosophy are thinking differently about its value.

Cheryl Cadogan's 13-year-old son, David, normally attends programming there one day a week during the school year. But this year, Cadogan said, their family has been on heightened alert since her partner is immunocompromised.

"It's not safe for us as a family to have him go back to school," she said.

David will instead take his Grade 8 classes online, while also spending a few days a week at the outdoor school.

Cadogan said she knows there's still a risk, but she is heeding the words of Dr. Anthony Fauci, head of the U.S. National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, who has said that  outdoors is better than indoors.

Indeed, the appeal of open-air activities during the COVID-19 pandemic is rooted in science. Dr. Linsey Marr of Virginia Tech studies how viruses spread through the air. She said COVID-19 transmission by air is happening — "there's really no question anymore."

When asked why there's a lower risk of transmission outside, she recommended picturing a smoker. Outside, she said, the exhaled smoke "rapidly disperses throughout the atmosphere and becomes very dilute." Indoors, on the other hand, it gets "trapped."

While masks, physical distancing and proper ventilation can go a long way to help curb the spread of the virus in schools, Dr. Marr said she would seize upon "any opportunity that there is to move an activity outdoors."

The Toronto District School Board (TDSB) is trying to increase those opportunities for its students, encouraging teachers to take classes outside whenever possible this year. But schools that don't have a forest on their property will need to think differently about using the space beyond their doors.

David Hawker-Budlovsky is the Central Coordinating Principal for outdoor education at the TDSB. While it won't be possible for many large downtown schools to have full-day outdoor programming, he said teachers will be able to schedule time in the yard, while staggering entries and exits to maintain physical distance.

WATCH | Is the future of school outdoors?:

Is the future of school outdoors?

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The Guelph Outdoor School has seen a spike in enrolment as COVID-19 pushes more parents and students to search for safety in fresh air, but could outdoor learning change education beyond the pandemic?

Teachers and students will have to get used to "traveling around and using the community as classroom as well," he said. Ideas range from reading aloud to a class in the yard, to teaching about climate change in a nearby ravine, or learning about local history while walking around the neighbourhood.

Hawker-Budlovsky said there will be challenges, and admitted the plan has skeptics. But he's excited about the idea of getting kids outside more often.

"I think what's really important is to be able to look at this [with] an open mind, be creative and be as flexible as possible," he said.

Open-mindedness will certainly be a valuable trait for those holding open-air classes in the Canadian winter. But according to Pamela Gibson, a former teacher who now consults on sustainability and outdoor education with Learning for a Sustainable Future (LSF), students and teachers can get past it.

"There is no bad weather," she said. "There are just bad clothes." Over time, she said, people can learn how to prepare themselves for those less-than-perfect forecasts.

In the early 2000s, as a teacher at Belfountain Public School in Caledon, Ont., Gibson began experimenting with open-air class time. The idea was initially spurred by a group of parents looking for ways for their kids to spend more time outside on the 10-acre property surrounding the school.

At first, she said, "we had the usual kids that hung around the doors and really felt uncomfortable. But as time went on, we [didn't] have those door hangers anymore."

Outdoor learning has become so ingrained there, she said students will sometimes spend two-thirds of their days in the yard or out in the community, working on class projects.

'Physically distanced' games are part of the fun at the Guelph Outdoor School. (Sarah Bridge/CBC)

Teachers looking to adopt similar programs elsewhere, she said, will have to be creative. But from the Belfountain experience, even a tree can be looked to as a "possible source of curriculum."

Gibson suggested educators ask themselves, "What's the math in that tree? What's the science in that tree? Where are the arts in that tree?" She believes it's all there.

Holding classes outside in the community is not only possible, Gibson said, but is "crucial," even beyond the pandemic. Curriculum, she said, is "supposed to be what children need to function in the world, not just inside the building [and] not just inside their homes."

With the spectre of COVID-19 pushing educators to look differently at their classrooms, Gibson said, there's "an opportunity for great change," and perhaps even a chance to improve the system for the future.