During the pandemic, schools across the country turned themselves inside out, holding classes outdoors to reduce the spread of the coronavirus. And now that vaccination is driving down transmission rates, school administrators are eager to get students back in the classroom.
But disease prevention is just one of many reasons to educate kids outdoors. As we invest in pandemic recovery and infrastructure, we should make sure all students have access to nature-filled outdoor spaces.
Consider the experience of Portland, Maine, one of the country’s first public school districts to develop a district-wide outdoor learning program in response to COVID-19. By last fall, half of the district’s teachers were using one of 156 new outdoor classroom spaces provided on every school campus.
Portland students enjoyed hands-on learning outdoors. They studied pollination in a community garden. And at first snowfall, they were outside learning how snowflakes are formed. The experience of students and teachers in Portland affirmed what research has shown: When students play in nature they are kinder to each other, more physically active and more creative.
There are clear educational benefits, as well. Many students who struggle in a classroom setting thrive in an active, outdoor environment. Learning outside helps teachers see those students as capable, while the students themselves feel successful in school.
The benefits of outdoor learning can even be measured on test scores. Three years after Los Angeles’s Leo Politi Elementary School added a small wildlife garden, fifth-grade standardized science scores rose from just 9% proficient to 53% proficient or advanced.
By opening our schoolyards and adding access to nature, we can create schools that heal as well as teach. A majority of today’s public school students deal with layered crises of poverty and trauma, a fear of school shootings and neighborhood violence, and a genuine concern for the future of their planet. In response, schools are adopting trauma-informed teaching and hiring more counselors in schools.
These ongoing approaches are vital, and nature-filled outdoor spaces can help. Access to nature can help us heal faster, lessen stress and anxiety, reduce student crime and disorderly conduct, help struggling students and improve environmental and physical health.
There are 53,669 low-income Title 1 schools in the United States, 55% of our public schools. The American Rescue Plan, signed into law in March, includes $126 billion for these schools. Some 20% of those funds are expected to go toward school facilities, according to the 21st Century School Fund.
This means that districts could invest around half a m$500,000 into improving the buildings and grounds of every Title 1 school in the United States. That is enough to completely transform a campus into an outdoor space for learning, or open a school building to nature.
The pandemic may be winding down, but the challenges facing students and schools are as daunting as ever. Outdoor learning was a lifeline during the worst days of COVID-19, and its benefits extend well beyond preventing disease.
So, as we return to school, let’s not go back to keeping students inside all day. Instead, let’s invest in welcoming, nature-filled schools to support students and teachers’ mental and physical health. We can design schools that heal.
Claire Latané is an assistant professor at California State Polytechnic University, Pomona and the author of “Schools That Heal: Design with Mental Health in Mind.”