Adapting Together: It’s Time to Take Learning Outside

With the continued impacts of COVID-19, schools and families across the country are having to deal with the changes it brings and adapting together to determine what school will look like this fall. As schools and parents make the hard decision on whether learning will be back on campus five days a week, part-time or fully remote, one innovative idea that has come to light is the concept of utilizing outdoor school grounds and local community green spaces for learning. Expanding classrooms into outdoor green spaces – on and off school grounds – can provide options for social distancing and reduce the density of often crowded indoor spaces, providing safe, alternative, and equitable places for student learning.

Expanding Classrooms

This idea of using school grounds and the environment for learning is not new. For decades, the National Wildlife Federation (NWF) has been working with schools and communities around the country to utilize their school grounds for learning through our Schoolyard Habitats® program.

To date over 9,500 schools nationwide have been certified through the program. Educators work together with local community members to explore how they can create and restore wildlife habitat on school grounds while providing opportunities for students to connect with nature and participate in environment-based learning opportunities.

Expanding classrooms into outdoor green spaces – on and off school grounds – can provide options for social distancing and reduce the density of often crowded indoor spaces, providing safe, alternative, and equitable places for student learning.

Benefits to the school community include enhanced hands-on learning opportunities, on-site field trips, decreased grounds maintenance costs, developing closer ties with the community, and a sense of empowerment and environmental stewardship in students. Research has also shown that this connection to nature helps to support student mental and physical health, provide opportunities for social-emotional engagement, and fosters student creativity and imagination.

Navigating Outdoor Learning

Undoubtedly there are challenges associated with the idea of taking learning outside. Not all schools will be able to utilize their school grounds as alternative learning sites. Every school site is different. Individual schools and districts must assess the feasibility and address key issues such as climate, adequate outdoor green space, and safety issues.

As well, schools will need to provide the training for existing staff, and/or bring in additional staff to help support these outdoor learning sites. Teaching outdoors requires a different set of classroom management skills, so adequate professional development or support is critical. Although this option may not be available to all, it is certainly a viable option worth pursuing by those who can and want to do it.

To support our schools and families as they face these challenges together, NWF and our partner organizations across the country are providing programs and resources that will help you to take your learning outside! See below for some great programs and resources and stay-tuned for our new Eco-Schools at HOME program coming soon in September.

Tools for Teaching Outdoors

Girl in garden

NWF’s Schoolyard Habitat Program: Explore NWF’s Schoolyard Habitats® Program and learn how to create wildlife habitat and outdoor classrooms on your school grounds. Looking for some ideas on how to teach outdoors? Here’s a sampling of lessons and activities to support student learning, such as What’s the Matter in Nature, Symmetry in Nature and Monarch Recovery Garden Model.

ECHO – ECHO is NWF’s Early Childhood Health Outdoors program in partnership with the Natural Learning Initiative. ECHO has developed COVID-19 guidelines for child care centers and a terrific guide for parents and caregivers to encourage Nature Play at Home.

eeGuidelines for Reopening Schools: Check out this new publication from the North American Association of Environmental Education (NAAEE) that offers support for schools and districts as they find ways to more safely and equitably reopen for students this fall.

National COVID-19 Outdoor Learning Initiative This comprehensive initiative started by Green Schoolyards America is working to create frameworks, strategies and guidance for helping school districts utilize outdoor spaces for learning during COVID-19.

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