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What can we learn from schools that went OUTside instead of ONline?

Desperate times call for desperate measures.

For most schools during the pandemic, “desperate measures” meant moving curriculum online and teaching children how to learn on a small screen. This monumental shift highlighted and deepened racial and socioeconomic inequities in the educational system, reaped havoc on the emotional lives of children and has driven many overtaxed parents, especially women, out of the workforce.

Although many well-resourced schools, including the one where I work, did this well, for the majority of our country, it was not the greatest experiment.

On the contrary, some schools decided that “virtual learning” wouldn’t do. We’ve seen bold administrators and teachers bucking Zoom for tree stumps, trails, yurts, rooftops gardens and even graveyards.

These stories span the country, globe, public schools, private schools, temperate climates and harsher ones. A few examples were cited in a recent New York Times article from October 2020. The article also highlighted the history of outdoor learning in the U.S. dating back to the 1907 tuberculosis outbreak.

For some, these pedagogies have been discounted as rosy ideas whose benefits were ethereal and difficult to prove. This despite the fact that, through the years, there has been plenty of research proving that the benefits of nature-based instruction are, in fact, very tangible and measurable.

For example, a 2019 study published in the journal “Frontiers of Psychology” found that simple tweaks like “outdoor classrooms, vegetation around schools and homes and school gardens,” resulted in improvements including increased “retention of subject matter content, higher standardized test scores, better grades, better reading, math, writing skills and higher graduation rates.”

There were also documented improvements in important soft skills such as leadership, communication, resilience, critical thinking and problem-solving.

If there are so many benefits, many ask why isn’t there widespread adoption and funding for these programs. Given my view from the front row at an amazing school that is doing this well, it’s easier said than done.

First, outdoor school requires a complete redesign of curriculum, pedagogy, schedule, a dispensation from the county, access to outdoor space, additional trained staff, funding, transportation backflips and another pivot for tired teachers and administrators.

If that weren’t enough, it also involves bringing along skeptical parents who wonder if outdoor time will reap enough “academic” rewards. When it comes to equity, providing resources so that all the students have the right outdoor gear is also important to consider.

If we hadn’t just faced all of these hurdles to adjust to distance learning, I may have said this shift would be impossible. However, I have had the privilege of watching the leaders and educators at our school develop this incredible program just when I thought there was no gas left in the tank. It’s been transformative and proves there are enormous rewards that come from rising to the occasion. Students are thriving in person, parents are thrilled, teachers are invigorated and it’s COVID-19 safe.

Now that schools are resuming in-person learning with vaccinated teachers, we are at a crossroads. I hope we can plot the course very carefully before diving right back onto a well-worn path. We know about the benefits of nature being integrated into the curriculum and we’ve also seen schools stretch themselves in ways that felt unimaginable a year ago.

The outdoors also happens to be trending. It is a sanctuary for many of us crawling out of our skin in packed homes, filled with devices and dueling Zoom meetings.

Although the pandemic might be shifting, we need to treat the coming years as an opportunity to learn from real data about what worked. Whenever I have a big problem that seems too overwhelming to solve, I think of author and teacher Malidoma Some’s quote about nature being “the silent witness to intuition.”

I get outside, take some breaths and somehow return more prepared to tackle complexity.

It seems like it’s time for parents, educators, politicians and kids to all get away from Zoom, head outside and fight for this call to come through from our intuition.

This article was first published in the Marin Independent Journal on April 18, 2021.

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Jamie Moffett

With twenty years of admission and placement experience, Jamie has advised thousands of students and parents at Bay Area Independent Schools. As a mom, she is personally aware of how the right school allows your child to thrive.