Outdoor learning for all: strengthening a trusted solution
July 2020 By Ciera DeSilva, Sierra Club BC Education Program Manager
The call for outdoor learning opportunities is gaining momentum across the province from parents, guardians, teachers and students alike – and for good reason. Nature education, particularly outdoor learning, has many long-term benefits for children. Time outside reduces stress, promotes physical activity, fosters teamwork and leadership abilities, inspires creative thinking, and allows kids to form connections to local places, plants and animals – just to name a few.
That’s why for years our education programs have focused on getting kids outside and understanding our interconnections to the natural world. And why when COVID-19 arrived, we quickly shifted to producing packages for parents and teachers to engage kids in safe, nature-focused learning opportunities.
While there’s increasing interest in outdoor learning, regular in-school opportunities remain limited. ‘Nature Kindergarten’ and ‘forest schools’ are popular programs but have limited, often competitive, spots and many of these programs are private. These barriers make outdoor educational experiences inaccessible to many students across BC.
Let’s change this.
Outdoor learning should be accessible for all students from pre-school through to Grade 12, especially given the presence of COVID-19 and evidence that virus transmission is much less likely in outdoor spaces. Teachers from all subject areas — not just science and P.E. — can incorporate meaningful elements of outdoor learning into their teaching. For example, English classes can read and do creative writing outdoors, while math and art can be taught through observation of the world outside classroom walls. In fact, outdoor learning offers endless possibilities for cross-curricular learning.
While online distance learning can be useful during COVID-19, it is no substitute for the important face-to-face socialization needed as part of healthy development. We owe it to our kids to advocate for safe, in-person learning this coming school year, as made possible through regular outdoor learning alongside their peers, teachers and support staff.
To make this a reality, there are three main limitations that schools and daycares can overcome with public and governmental support:
1) Lack of greenspace or covered outdoor learning spaces.
The addition and maintenance of outdoor learning spaces is not equitable because it usually depends on fundraising by parents. Solution:Fund the construction and maintenance of greenspaces and covered outdoor learning spaces at all BC schools, from pre-school through to high school. Covered outdoor spaces will ensure that classes can spend time learning outside regardless of the weather, year-round. These areas will also provide safe learning environments for students and staff during the pandemic as the risk of spreading COVID-19 is lowest outdoors. Schoolyard spaces equipped for outdoor learning would enable students to connect with nature and engage in activities that stimulate physical activity, the use of all senses, creativity, problem-solving, and a sense of connection to andstewardship of the land.These outdoor spaces would be available during class time, as well as at recess and lunch, and for after school programs. As an added bonus, they could be made available as meeting spaces for communityuse outside of school hours.School staff should be given input on the design of these spaces to ensure they fit school community needs and the natural surroundings of the school.
Outdoor classrooms are not a new idea, they were used a century ago in the US to stop the spread of tuberculosis. Nature schools have been popular since the 1950s in Sweden and outdoor learning environments at schools have been on the rise in Norway, Finland, the UK, Japan, the US, Germany, Sweden and Australia in past decades. Click here for a video showing many of the benefits of outdoor learning on school grounds.
2) Lack of additional adults to accompany classesoutdoors.
This is especially problematic for schools that have little on-site outdoor space because teachers must then take their class off school property to connect with local plants and animals. Without the required adult assistants to help supervise the class and maintain student-adult ratios, teachers are unable to provide outdoor learning opportunities to youth. Furthermore, students with special learning needs — including those needing support with emotional regulation — are sometimes left at school during field trips as there are not enough Educational Assistants to accompany them. This is especially disappointing as studies show that these students benefit greatly from outdoor learning.
Solution: Hire more support staff—especially those specialized in outdoor and nature education —to ensure student safety and inclusion in regular outdoor learning, whether on or off school grounds.
3) Lack of training/skills in outdoor and/or environmental education for existing and new teachers and support staff.
Many teachers receive minimal or no training in outdoor learning or environmental education.
Solution:Training in outdoor and environmental education would increase teacher confidence in taking their students outside, while engaging more deeply with learning in creative, hands-on ways. It would enhance meaningful cross-curricular learning opportunities for students and teachers. This training is also an important opportunity to partnerwith local Indigenous educators and knowledge keepers. This collaboration would support teachers in implementing the First Peoples’ Principles of Learning and the new BC Curriculum connected to Indigenous peoples, while helping to advance many of the Truth and Reconciliation Calls to Action. Ideally, this training should be tailored to the local region and habitat.