Turning Education Inside Out


Photo courtesy of Green Schoolyards America, greenschoolyards.org | Photo by Thomas Kuoh Photography.

This post was originally posted on the Child and Nature Network and includes the full-length version. It is republished here with permission.

In inner-city Chicago, an English class spends reading time under newly planted shade trees on the schoolyard, while younger kids tend a garden plot, exclaiming “we’re growing a salad.”

In Grand Rapids, 5th graders at a lower-income school scramble across bridges, scoot through tunnels and climb a lookout made from logs and stumps—which they helped design in art class. Middle-schoolers nearby study math at a new outdoor classroom built into a hillside.

In rural Plumas County, California, students at 18 schools now attend some classes in forests, meadows or banks of the Feather River within a ten-minute walk from their homerooms.

At almost 100 public schools in Austin, students of all ages engage in hands-on lessons by keeping chickens, taking nature walks, investigating pond life and other hands-on opportunities right outside their schoolhouse doors. “It helps kids find imagination in so many things, and invites their curiosity in ways that adults sometimes forget about,” reports the school district’s Sustainability Manager Darien Clary.

This is what Back-to-School 2020 could like all across America—with green schoolyards offering a safer, more equitable middle ground in the wrenching decisions over in-person vs. online instruction.

Making School Safe in the Midst of a Pandemic

It’s not too late for educators, parents and superintendents to take steps that allow kids to learn in fresh air settings at least part of the time, which can tip the scales toward in-person education for some school districts. This can be easily and economically done by opening up schoolgrounds, closing-off adjoining streets, walking to nearby parks or incorporating field trips into K-12 curriculum.

Photo courtesy of PEAS (Partners for Education, Agriculture & Sustainability)—Austin, TX

Photo courtesy of PEAS (Partners for Education, Agriculture & Sustainability)—Austin, TX

“Officials need to think outside the building,” editorialized the New York Times, noting “in Denmark, schools held spring classes on playgrounds, in public parks and even in the stands of the national soccer stadium.”

Letting millions of students head outdoors is one of the best ways to ensure that kids (and ultimately their families and communities) are not exposed to coronavirus all day long sitting inside school buildings. Nearly all epidemiological studies show that chances of COVID-19 infection are dramatically reduced out-of-doors. One of the few comprehensive studies tracing the spread of the COVID-19 so far—done in Wuhan, China, earlier this year— found only one case out of 7,000 was directly attributable to open-air transmission.

Embracing outdoor learning also helps avoid the pitfalls of online-only teaching which, based on the experience of last spring, fails students—particularly those in elementary school or with special needs. That’s why the blue-ribbon National Academies of Science, Engineering and Medicine, which advises the nation on scientific issues, declared, “it should be a priority for districts to re-open for in-person learning.”

Dr. Gail Christopher—director of the Natural Collaborative for Health Equity and former Vice-president of the Kellogg Foundation—points out that exclusive or excessive virtual learning deters academic progress for students who are disadvantaged by systems of inequity, leaving them even farther behind their peers. She also highlights the negative mental health effects of screen time for all children, many of whom are already suffering increased stress due to the pandemic, confinement at home, the economic crisis, racism and unrest in their communities. “This moment offers an opportunity for us to move learning outside in natural settings, which are restorative and calming. This will reduce cortisol [fight-or-flight] hormones in children, which science shows improves students’ overall cognition and health.”

How Do You Hold Classes Outside?

Moving education outside “can be as simple as doing routine activities such as check-ins, reading circles, story-telling, physical education, art and math activities in an outdoor setting,” explains Cheryl Charles, a co-founder of the Children and Nature Network (C&NN) along with Richard Louv, author of the bestseller Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children from Nature-Deficit Disorder.

“It’s time to turn education inside out….” Louv recently wrote with C&NN Executive Director Sarah Milligan-Toffler. “School grounds and the natural infrastructure that exists in every community can be activated for effective learning.”

“Schools have a time and space problem—with so many hours in the school day and so many square feet inside school buildings. We are trying to help schools think about… increasing the amount of space that’s available,” says Berkeley science education professor Craig Strang in Education Week. He is involved with Green Schoolyards America, which like C&NN is promoting outdoor learning as an immediate, low-cost method of making schools safer during this and any future pandemics .

Nature play space for elementary school students by Bienenstock | Photo courtesy of Children & Nature Network

There is nothing new or untested about the idea of green schoolyards. Ancient Greek philosophers and African village elders held lessons beneath shade trees, and today a network of udeskole (“out schools”) for students 7 to 16 across Scandinavia emphasizes learning outside. Fourteen percent of schools in Denmark hold some core-subject classes beyond school walls.

Earlier epidemics in the US inspired creative outside-the-schoolhouse thinking. In 1909, 65 open-air schools were up and running in communities plagued by tuberculosis, including frigid New England where the first one was established in Providence, RI

The modern wave of green schoolyards in the US stretches back several decades, with 200 now operating in New York City, more than 100 in San Francisco, almost 100 in Denver and 200 in Harris County, Texas.

Even before the coronavirus hit, a diverse movement of students, parents, educators, public officials and entire communities were championing green schoolyards as a boost for children’s physical health, mental health and academic achievement. Their mission is that students at every single school across America will have access to nature-based learning opportunities on their school grounds by 2050, explains Jaime Zaplatosch, director of C&NN’s Green Schoolyards for Healthy Communities initiative.

Louv and Milligan-Toffler weave a vision of what this will look like:

“Imagine schoolyards that are packed with trees, native plants and grasses — and gardens where children can explore and learn about the birds, pollinators, and other critters in their neighborhoods.”

“Imagine children learning in outdoor classrooms, growing food and other plants, playing in natural areas, and exploring trails.”

“Imagine spaces that encourage creativity and problem-solving while serving as places of refuge and solitude for students and educators alike.”

Surprising Benefits of Greening Our Schools

Even if a 100-percent effective vaccine for COVID-19 appeared tomorrow and was promptly administered to every person in the world, green schoolyards would remain a valuable innovation because of other health, academic and social benefits they provide, according to a wealth of recent scientific studies:

Nathan Smith Davis Elementary School, Chicago | Photo courtesy of Space to Grow

Development of Essential Life Skills: Advances in critical thinking, problem solving, teamwork, leadership and personal resilience were associated with students taking part in nature-based learning programs, according to a 2019 research review led by University of Illinois professor Ming Kuo and the Children & Nature Network’s consulting research director, Cathy Jordan. Other studies find improvement in attention span, motor skills, sense of independence, impulse control and environmental literacy for children with frequent contact with nature.

Improved Test Scores: A ten-year study of 500 Chicago-area schools found that students with access to green schoolyards performed better on standardized tests. (Kuo et al., 2018)

Even More Improvement for Disadvantaged Students: Green schoolyards generate even greater academic progress among children suffering the effects of economic inequity, systemic racism or trauma—a breakthrough for helping narrow the growing chasm in opportunity between privileged students and everyone else. (Kuo et al. 2019)

Happier Students: Adding more natural features to school playgrounds resulted in less bullying, children playing more with each other and a higher percentage of students who report “being happy” at school. (Farmer et al., 2017).

Fewer Discipline Problems: Schools with green schoolyards were found to experience fewer instances of aggression and other behavioral issues. (Bell & Dyment, 2008)

Reduced Stress and Heightened Well-Being: “In green schoolyards, students find peace away from stresses in the classroom and daily life,” reports University of Colorado professor Louise Chawla. This corroborates an earlier study led by Cornell professor Christina Kelz, which found that a “renovated schoolyard significantly diminished pupils’ physiological stress levels and enhanced their psychological well-being.”

Increased Physical Activity and Less Childhood Obesity: An avalanche of medical research links exercise with better health outcomes, which makes recent studies documenting Green Schoolyard’s role in heightening vigorous play, particularly for girls, significant. The quality of schoolyards also correlates to lower Body-Mass-Index among students.

Why do green schoolyards make such a difference in kids’ lives?

“Because nature-based pedagogy treats the whole child — their physiological, physical, emotional and intellectual development as well as academic success,” explains Cathy Jordan, a pediatrics professor at the University of Minnesota and C&NN’s Consulting Director of Research.

“This is more important than ever right now in the midst of the pandemic and economic crash,” she says. “Children are coping with mild to severe stress, everything from being cooped up to losing a relative or witnessing domestic violence. Many of them will return to school in much different shape than they were in last March.”


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