Outdoor classrooms could help solve the school reopening dilemma 

The pandemic could change the nature of school for the better

Mr. Dargatz's kindergarten class on the Timber Wolf Trail (photo courtesy of Peter Dargatz)
Peter Dargatz's kindergarten class from Woodside Elementary on the Timber Wolf Trail (photo courtesy of Peter Dargatz)

To re-open or not to re-open? The great back-to-school debate currently taking place in communities all across the country pits public health against education.

It’s a difficult dilemma: Should school districts pack kids into classrooms to share germs with each other and vulnerable, older school staff — even as COVID-19 rates continue to spike? Or should they start the fall with another round of at-home online learning? Madison and Milwaukee school boards have opted for the second choice, which means frazzled parents have to miss work and students will swap in-person interactions for staring at a screen all day.

Here’s another option: Hold school outside. 

Teachers attending the annual Summer Institute professional development observe macroinvertebrates they caught (Photo courtesy of FIELD Adventures)
Teachers attending the annual Summer Institute professional development observe macroinvertebrates they caught (Photo courtesy of FIELD Adventures)

“Now that we know the transmission of COVID is much, much lower outside, this could be a really great option for schools, especially this fall,” says Julie Jarvis, who works with the statewide nonprofit FIELD Edventures (formerly Wisconsin Green Schools Network) helping teachers take advantage of the outdoor space at their schools.

Staying outside during the school year is an idea that worked 100 years ago, during the tuberculosis pandemic, according to a recent story in The New York Times. Open-air school rooms in cities around the country helped stem the spread of TB and kept kids learning. 

In the bitter New England winter of 1907, the Times reports, kids bundled up in “Eskimo sitting bags” and attended classes in industrial buildings with wide-open windows, on New York City rooftops, even on an abandoned ferry boat. The experiment, which began in Providence, Rhode Island, was so successful it was replicated in 65 fresh-air classrooms around the country. 

The benefits of being outside

Outdoor learning has benefits beyond germ control. Proponents are hoping that the rapid rethinking forced on schools by the pandemic will prompt more parents, teachers and school officials to embrace the movement to get kids outside.

Jarvis points to “a huge body of research that shows being outside reduces stress, increases positive emotions and reduces negative emotions.”

SAGES (School For Agricultural and Environmental Studies) students studying and identifying macroinvertebrates (photo courtesy of FIELD Adventures).
SAGES (School For Agricultural and Environmental Studies) students studying and identifying macroinvertebrates (photo courtesy of FIELD Adventures).

“This is a national conversation,” says the Department of Public Instruction’s environmental education consultant Victoria Rydberg. “In order to create space for physical distancing, in order to create well ventilated spaces for students this fall — and just to give them this wonderful mental health benefit of nature learning outside — how can we use our outdoor spaces as classrooms as an answer to COVID?”

DPI and FIELD Edventures have been working together to provide a five-week summer learning series for teachers on “place-based education” which takes learning outdoors and into the community surrounding a school.

Environmental education is required by state law in Wisconsin and has a long history, dating back to the establishment of the first school forest in 1928. And, despite mounting pressure to meet standards measured by standardized tests, some schools and individual teachers have developed extensive outdoor curricula, “engaging the rock-skipping, frog-catching spirit,” as FIELD Edventures puts it on its website. 

So far in 2020, Field Edventures has worked with approximately 150 schools in Wisconsin, 400 individual educators and 3,750 students.

Crestwood Elementary School students in Madison design a new school garden (Photo courtesy of FIELD Adventures)
Crestwood Elementary School students in Madison design a new school garden (Photo courtesy of FIELD Adventures)

Jarvis helps teachers in the Madison Metropolitan School District develop outdoor lessons that have included estimating the number of pine cones in a certain area of the schoolyard, measuring the angles created by the criss-crossed branches of a tree, using outdoor exploration as a prompt for writing fiction — as well as deep investigations of animal habitats surrounding a school. One group of young students investigated whether snow is a solid or a liquid by coming up with criteria and testing the snow.

“We’ve had people study physics by going sledding,” Jarvis says.

If students and teachers are not ready to spend a Wisconsin winter outside, Rydberg points out, they can still integrate place-based learning into the curriculum. 

“One of the comments I got when I started these conversations early on was, ‘It’s really hard to write with a pencil with mittens on,’” says Rydberg.  But place-based learning can also mean exploring indoor spaces in the community surrounding a school, she explains.

Plus, sending half the class outside for part of the day creates more room for social distancing indoors.

No such thing as bad weather

As for worries about the cold Wisconsin winters, Jarvis quotes the adage, “There’s no such thing as bad weather, just bad gear.”

School districts that are buying a chromebook for every student could spend less money to make sure every kid has a pair of snow boots and a good coat, she says.

DPI and FIELD Edventures are also helping teachers try to figure out how to integrate nature into virtual and blended learning plans.

And they encourage school districts to reach out to community partners.

A recent DPI survey showed that nature centers get 78% of their funding from K-12 education programming. With K-12 field trips cancelled, nature centers might struggle to stay open.

High Marq Environmental Charter School students search for lichen at Devils Lake State Park on a FIELD Day (photo courtesy of FIELD Adventures).
High Marq Environmental Charter School students search for lichen at Devils Lake State Park on a FIELD Day (photo courtesy of FIELD Adventures).

“Nature centers are set up for large groups. Nature centers have staff who know how to engage in education,” says Rydberg. “So there are some districts having conversations with their local community nature centers so they can start to look at how this can be part of a community solution to take more learning outside this year.”

Going back to ‘old school’ kindergarten

One Wisconsin teacher who is all-in for outdoor learning is Peter Dargatz, who has taught at Woodside Elementary, a public school in Sussex, for the last 14 years. About six years ago Dargatz brought his lawnmower to school to make a half-mile trail on a beautiful piece of land behind the school building. 

He had noticed that the kids in his kindergarten class were performing well on standardized tests, but were having trouble socially and emotionally, struggling to solve problems, collaborate and initiate play.

Dargatz recalls a particularly academically advanced kindergartener who was reading at a third-grade level and doing multiplication problems. “She was just doing all these wonderful academic things and I kept pushing her,” he says. In the last week of the school year, Dargatz says he decided to reach into the back of the closet for games and playthings that “we just didn’t have time for anymore.”

“I went old-school, traditional kindergarten,” he says. But when he got out the housekeeping set and the art supplies, he says, his academically gifted student was nonplussed. “I saw that she didn’t know what to do.” 

Dargatz felt troubled that his young charges were losing their connection with play. “It was an emotional time for me,” he says. “I had just had my first daughter, and I kind of came to the realization that I wouldn’t want my child to be in my classroom.”

Peter Dargatz and students on the trail last December, where they made natural ornaments to feed the animals and decorated an evergreen tree. (Photo courtesy of Peter Dagatz)
Peter Dargatz and students on the trail last December, where they made natural ornaments to feed the animals and decorated an evergreen tree. (Photo courtesy of Peter Dagatz)

That spurred Dargatz’s interest in studying nature kindergarten, a movement that is popular in Europe. He met with school district administrators and got permission to create the nature trail and lead his students outside. And he put his vision into action — “to give kids more time and space and opportunity to just explore and play.”

The result is a nature kindergarten class that has received national recognition. Dargatz’s students spend time outdoors every day, exploring a restored prairie and the woods behind the school, playing, making discoveries, conducting experiments, participating in community service projects like pulling weeds, and leading their own learning.

“I’m very proud of the program that we’ve created,” says Dargatz. “What I try to do is, instead of trying to fit the child into what the curriculum has been, I look at what the curriculum does and try to fit it into where the child is.”

Dargatz is planning to be back in his outdoor classroom with the kids this fall.

Stop worrying about ‘falling behind’

The thing that most bothers him about the current school-reopening debate, he says, is the frequent assertion he hears that kids need to go back to school because they are “falling behind.”

“I really want to know what race kids are in,” he says. “We’re falling behind and we’re trying to catch up to these expectations that we placed on these kids.”

In Dargatz’s view, the expectations themselves are inappropriate.

“Yeah, my kids could do these academic things — but just because they can doesn’t mean they should. I could push them to reach these reading levels, or to write these long sentences in paragraphs, but is it developmentally appropriate? Should they be doing that?”

He hopes the pandemic will lead to a paradigm shift.

Teachers observe wetland species at a FIELD Adventures workshop (photo courtesy of FIELD Edventures)
Teachers observe wetland species at a FIELD Adventures workshop (photo courtesy of FIELD Edventures)

“I’m hoping that we can take this opportunity and realize that there’s no need to catch up,” he says. “If we slow down and sit back and instead of pushing kids and grinding these kids — just kind of let them be kids, let them play, let them explore, we can see that, wow, they can do a lot of these things naturally. And they’re having fun and they’re having power and choice in what they’re doing, rather than just doing things because we’re asking them to, or doing things because that’s what the curriculum asks them to do.”

‘Everything has been thrown out the window’

There is a big body of research that backs up the notion that outdoor education could be beneficial not just in the early years, but also for older kids.

Before the pandemic, American teens were already spending about nine hours per day online according to Common Sense Media. Americans as a group spend 90% of our time indoors according to study commissioned by the EPA. Richard Louv, author of Last Child in the Woods and founder of the Children & Nature Network, coined the term “nature deficit disorder” to describe the ill effects on children of our alienation from the natural world. The Children & Nature Network website has a whole library of peer-reviewed research on the physical, psychological and academic benefits of spending time outside — from reducing near-sightedness in 8-year-olds to increasing attention spans, improving academic performance and heightened physical and emotional well-being.

In the pandemic, the traditional school format could add even more hours of online time to kids’ days. Proponents of outdoor learning hope to push things in a different direction.

A student, at home after COVID, uses a magnifying glass to make observations at home
A student, at home after COVID, uses a magnifying glass to make observations at home (photo courtesy of FIELD Adventures).

“Everything has been thrown out the window. We’re having to innovate whether we want to or not,” says Jarvis. “Right now, we’re kind of going toward a screen. But we could innovate and go outdoors, and get all these benefits.”

“We’re hoping that with COVID, as people are just realizing how good it is for them to be outside,” she adds, “that that will sort of filter over to how we look at education.” 

Ruth Conniff
Ruth Conniff is Editor-in-chief of the Wisconsin Examiner. She formerly served as Editor-in-chief of The Progressive Magazine, and opened the Progressive’s office in Washington, DC, during the Clinton Administration, where she made her debut as a political pundit on CNN’s Capital Gang Sunday and Fox News. She moved to Oaxaca, Mexico, for a year in 2017, where she covered U.S./Mexico relations, the migrant caravan, and Mexico’s efforts to grapple with Donald Trump. Conniff is a frequent guest on All in with Chris Hayes on MSNBC and has appeared on Good Morning America, Democracy Now!, Wisconsin Public Radio, and other radio and television programs. In 2011, she did award-winning coverage of the uprising against Governor Scott Walker in Wisconsin. She has also written for The Nation, The New York Times, The Washington Post, and The Los Angeles Times, among other publications. Conniff graduated from Yale University in 1990, where she ran track and edited the campus magazine The New Journal.