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Outdoor classrooms: an unexpected public health solution?

young child standing behind logs in a sandy park Image: Megpie Photography, 2019
Image: Megpie Photography, 2019

Published on June 09, 2020

How school grounds can support in-person, hands-on and physically distant learning. 

By Heidi Campbell, Senior Program Manager at Evergreen

Much focus is being brought to bear on how spaces for children and families can support climate adaptation. Growing consideration is being given to shade provision, cooling and storm water management in our school grounds. With a global pandemic now upon us and distancing required, new questions are emerging about how a schools outdoor spaces can be better optimized to support play and learning.

These uncertain times are significantly unsettling, but also transformative, and can be a powerful driver for change.  

Evergreen’s work in the design and programming of green school grounds has never been more relevant and urgent. School boards, educators, parents and policymakers across the political spectrum are increasingly convinced by the growing amount of evidence about the exponentially positive impact of learning outdoors. There is increased recognition of the value and importance of public green space as core to our health and wellness. New teams of collaborators, and in particular, public health, are seeing the power of young people’s voices in shaping their schools, neighbourhoods, and cities – and seizing this moment to come together to explore opportunities for innovation. Green school grounds are wildly diverse and ecologically functional spaces offering many benefits – from overall health, to increased physical activity, to vibrant places for social interaction and community gatherings.

In addition, these learning spaces can also provide much needed accessible open space in times of social distancing – in particular as we think about the return to school. Outdoors as an extension of the classroom allows for social distancing to happen more naturally.

Outdoors as an extension of the classroom allows for social distancing to happen more naturally.
Heidi Campbell

Countries around the world are incorporating this thinking as they develop models to get kids safely back to school. For example, Scotland is reopening schools and exploring how using the school grounds and nearby green space not only optimizes physical distancing, but improves opportunities for experiential hands-on learning in nature. This is supported by policy that explicitly includes the use of the outdoor environment as a necessary approach and context for delivering its education curriculum. The Danish government is encouraging schools to do as many lessons outside as possible. Students are split across multiple classrooms with the implementation of more outdoor teaching, and the playground is modified to reflect social distancing rules and is split into 3 areas to prevent too much interaction. Here in Canada, Manitoba released new guidelines for teachers and students that encourages the use of outdoor facilities and playgrounds for learning.

Getting outside and connecting to nature can be a powerful approach to learning. With the right support and tools, teachers can engage their students’ outdoors in meaningful ways. Bringing nature back to your school ground is an opportunity for project-based learning and restorative process - a potent antidote for improving mental health and social connection. Children’s participation in shaping and making decisions about their school environment results in young people building skills and confidence to effect change. Engaging students in a school ground design challenge provides a chance for them to transform their spaces into an outdoor learning environment for all seasons.

Learn more

Evergreen works with schools and school boards across the country through our National School Ground Hubs Program and Climate Ready Schools Pilot. Connect with our Children’s Program, a team of talented outdoor educators offering virtual workshops, videos, and a monthly Outdoor Classroom Newsletter.

Interested in learning more about our participatory design process? Contact us to schedule a virtual consultation: pdworkshops@evergreen.ca.