The Current

Education experts call for outdoor classes to increase student safety amid COVID-19 pandemic

As politicians and school boards grapple with the challenge of how to safely reopen schools in the fall, some education experts are suggesting a simple solution — hold class outside. 

Toronto used 'forest schools' to teach children during tuberculosis outbreaks

Students work at the outdoor classroom in Stockholm, Sask. (Macdonald School/Submitted to CBC)

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As politicians and school boards grapple with the challenge of how to safely reopen schools in the fall, some education experts are suggesting a simple solution — hold class outside. 

The idea was recently suggested in a report released by Toronto's Hospital for Sick Children. But according to freelance journalist Monika Warzecha, it's not a new notion.

Warzecha said that while working on a series of stories about Toronto's history, she stumbled across a photo depicting the now-closed High Park Forest School. 

"It's this photo of all these kids, they're kind of formally dressed, sitting at these desks that are wooden and solid with wrought iron in front of a chalkboard and teacher. But they're in a forest," she said. 

Opened in the early 1900s, the High Park Forest School was initially built as a place to teach children with tuberculosis, but through the years it became a summer school for underprivileged children. The prevailing medical understanding at the time was that one of the ways to fight the bacterial infection was through exposure to sunlight and fresh air. 

Ontario Premier Doug Ford showed support for resurrecting outside teaching, saying on Wednesday that "no idea is a ridiculous idea" when it comes to allowing children to return to school. That includes the use of outdoor learning "as much as possible," he said.

'Numerous benefits'

Hilary Inwood, head of the Environmental and Sustainability Education Initiative at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education, said besides helping reduce the spread of COVID-19, there are "numerous benefits" in getting students out of the classroom.

"Room to move your body is often overlooked when it comes to really understanding how students learn," she told The Current guest host Mark Kelley. "They learn in lots of different ways, not just by sitting at a desk with pen and paper. So getting them outside has lots of physical [and] mental health benefits."

But she said it's unreasonable to expect inner-city schools to be able to hold class outdoors all day because of the limited size of some school yards. A rotation-based approach would work best, Inwood said.

Toronto's High Park Forest School was built to teach children with tuberculosis, but through the years it became a summer school for underprivileged children. (Submitted by City of Toronto Archives)

"So there'll be some time in classrooms, some time outside classrooms. That balance will allow teachers to really access the best of learning in both locations."

Kaviq Kaluraq, an instructor in the Nunavut Teacher Education program at Nunavut Arctic College, said outdoors teaching, or land-based learning, is well established in the Canada's North. She said it's an integral part of lessons in Indigenous communities like the Inuit. 

"In a culture as highly linked to the environment [as the Inuit], taking learning back to the land creates both experience and hands-on learning opportunities that link what [students] learn in schools to the communities they live in, to the land and to the places where they live. it creates a more practical and relatable learning experience," Kaluraq told Kelley. 

A successful example of outdoor education comes from the Nanook Elementary School in Iqaluit, where a tupik tent classroom was set up next to the main school building as a pilot project. Grade 1 and Grade 2 children learned "everything from math to science through to games and interactive activities" outdoors, she said. 

'New and improved normal of being outside'

"Some of their learning is also taken back indoors, but it happened throughout the year, both in the fall but also in the winter," Kaluraq said.

Inwood said that if student's in Canada's North can learn in "heart of winter," then city kids can "absolutely" do it, too.

"The same advantages that Kaviq outline of hands on experiential learning can absolutely be played out here. So finding ways to do it here in the city is just as likely even in the winter," she said.

Kaviq Kaluraq, instructor in the Nunavut Teacher Education program at Nunavut Arctic College, says land-based learning is crucial for Indigenous communities like the Inuit. (Andre Forget/AFP/Getty Images)

"There are many in the southern part of Canada who are doing this on a routine basis already. It just takes a little while for people to get used to that. That's new, and I'm going to argue a new and improved normal of being outside."

Glenda Hanna, principal of YouthSafe Outdoors, a risk management program for schools, agreed with Inwood and Kaluraq. She said getting kids outdoors is "the most important thing."

"We need kids to be outdoors. They learn more about themselves, about the natural environment and [their] connection to it," she said. "If we're going to take on the challenges of climate change and other things that are related to understanding the environment, we need to get kids in the environment."

But she cautioned that there are "certainly legal liability and public safety concerns with schools taking kids outdoors," particularly in higher-care activities. To ensure quality education, YouthSafe Outdoors has provided a set of guidelines to "support teachers getting kids out at a level that they have sufficient knowledge, skill and experience to do it safely." 


Written by Adam Jacobson. Produced by Julie Crysler. 

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