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Schools consider outdoor learning as a solution to reopen during COVID-19

Schools consider outdoor learning as a solution to reopen during COVID-19
Posted at 1:32 PM, Jul 31, 2020
and last updated 2020-08-05 11:10:43-04

Millions of students will begin the school year at home in front of a computer, despite the fact virtual learning proved inadequate for many working families and students lacking technology access.

Some education advocates suggest looking outside the classroom walls as a way to bring kids back to school safely.

"Our focus on the outdoors is even more critical now than it has been," said Allegra Inganni, School Age Program Director for the Child Educational Center.

Based out of La Cañada in Southern California, the private nonprofit has spent decades developing a childcare program centered around the outdoors.

"It's everything! Children are happier, they're healthier. There are statistics that say the more time they spend outside, the fewer days they're out sick," said Ellen Veselack, director of the center's preschool program.

Veselack says the program is research-based, and that learning outside is not only beneficial for kids physically but also cognitively.

"It's not just young children who do better outside, there's a whole host of research about the benefits of nature for us as adults," said Veselack.

One of the center's initiatives is The Outdoor Classroom Project, designed to help schools and other childcare centers embrace outdoor learning. During the pandemic, schools have reached out looking for ideas on how to get started.

"One of the things they talked about was what could they could help their teachers do outside. For example, if you're reading a chapter book to second graders, why not go outside to do that?" said Inganni.

"I think school districts could do some amazing things if they just reach a little bit and pivot in their thinking," said Veselack.

Outdoor learning advocates believe the move could help heal trauma from months of isolation and learning from a screen. It would also help schools navigate social distancing requirements while reducing the chance of virus spread. Countries like Denmark and Italy have embraced the concept, successfully reopening some schools.

The outdoor-education advocacy group Green Schoolyards America has long worked with school districts and public agencies to transform asphalt-covered school grounds into park-like green spaces.

They've launched a COVID-19 initiative to help schools develop cost-effective strategies to reopen outside, which includes online webinars, safety guidelines, and a two-page summary for districts new to the idea, or for teachers looking to start a conversation.

"It is thinking outside the box and knowing there is a different way to look at this," said Veselack.

While the concept could prove more challenging for communities that lack green space or face inclement weather, it's one more strategy to help schools gain back some of the normalcy COVID-19 took away.