HADLEY — In a cleared patch of forest in the shadow of the Holyoke Range, where birds chirp and chipmunks scamper and sunlight dapples the dirt floor, Ms. Baudendistel’s seventh-grade class is learning about the night sky.
Seated at wooden desks under a canopy, they’re part of a notably low-tech classroom: no Zoom, no Chromebooks, just wool blankets stored in 5-gallon buckets at their feet. After astronomy, they’ll be drawing with charcoal markers made from shaved willow branches.
Around them, the campus hums under a hazy sky. Students solve algebra equations, tend to honeybees, learn human anatomy, and debate current events — all in the fresh air. Here at The Hartsbrook School, a K-12 private school in Western Massachusetts, the 220 students will be outside all day, every day, for as long as possible.
“My dad says it’s only bad weather if you’re not dressed correctly,” said Luna Weiss, 13, sitting on a log at lunch.
As elected officials, teachers, and parents grapple with how to educate children in the middle of a pandemic, some schools are turning to the great outdoors: pitching tents, buying rain boots, and roughing it with their students in the elements. The catalyst for the move is that the risk of coronavirus transmission is much lower outside, though students at Hartsbrook, as at other outdoor schools, still wear masks and stay socially distant.
Also, a growing body of evidence suggests that outdoor learning has myriad educational and mental health benefits, from boosting academic performance to reducing stress in kids. What was once a fringe education movement suddenly seems not just plausible, but increasingly desirable.
At the same time, most large city schools — with many students and limited campus space to spread out — haven’t been able to pivot quickly to outdoor learning, leaving poorer kids online while wealthier kids roam the woods.
“This is the first time really that outdoor learning has hit mainstream education as a possibility," said Sharon Danks, CEO of Green Schoolyards America, an advocacy group that is helping schools transition outside. Danks said more than 130 schools and districts across the country have reached out requesting help.
In countries such as Denmark and Italy, many schools are experimenting with outdoor classes; so are the Portland Public Schools in Maine, the ConVal school district in New Hampshire, and the White River Valley Middle School in Vermont, among others. For outdoor education advocates, it’s been a long time coming.
“We feel better and we’re more healthy when we have exposure to green space,” said Anne Stires, the founder of the nature-based Juniper Hill School in Maine and a consultant for educators trying to move outside.
There is precedent for the success of such “fresh air schools” during a contagion. In the early 1900s, two doctors in Rhode Island started an open-air school for children who had been exposed to tuberculosis, hoping that the fresh air would lower transmission rates. When temperatures dropped, children sat in blanket bundles with heated soapstones at their feet; the teacher prepared hot soup and stoked a fire. The fresh air worked — none of the children got sick. Two years later, there were 65 similar schools across the country, even in such dense cities as New York, according to The New York Times.
Massachusetts issued guidance this summer allowing teachers to “hold classes outdoors when feasible,” and some districts, including Amherstand Newton, have erected tents. But for reasons both logistical and financial, most public schools in the state haven’t moved outside, advocates said.
“What we’re seeing is the private schools are doing it first, because they don’t have teachers unions and thousands of parents,” Danks said. “The smaller the institution, the easier it is to turn on a dime and try something new.”
The National Covid-19 Outdoor Learning Initiative, which Danks’s organization helped found, suggests even schools without many resources can conduct outdoor learning, turning to streets or local parks if school grounds are limited, and purchasing inexpensive outdoor seating such as straw bales. Danks also urges schools to think of outdoor gear, including rain jackets and long underwear, as part of school infrastructure, not a separate amenity that parents must buy.
Still, some advocates say, outdoor education risks becoming another unequal educational resource, with students in the state’s large city districts missing out.
“It creates a stark contrast when you see it with young people outside and free, versus young people sitting at home in front of a computer,” said John Diamond, a professor of urban education at the University of Wisconsin Madison. “It’s representative of a pattern that existed even prior to the pandemic.”
In Boston, teachers have asked the district to look into outdoor education, said Jessica Tang, the president of the Boston Teachers Union, partly out of concern that old school buildings are not well-ventilated.
“What about outdoor spaces? Can we set up tents?” Tang asked. “We want our students to have all those experiences, too.”
The Boston Public Schools already have 88 recently renovated schoolyards and 32 outdoor classrooms — plant-filled spaces where students can learn outside, said Katherine Walsh, the sustainability and environmental resources manager for BPS. The district’s reopening plan encourages schools “to utilize their available outdoor space for educational purposes.” But those classrooms are supplemental spaces; they can’t accommodate full-time learning for 54,000 BPS students.
“I don’t think that 100 percent outside was ever a conversation,” Walsh said.
Some organizations are trying to find ways to create outdoor lessons for BPS kids who are learning remotely. Boston After School & Beyond, for example, is working with the Franklin Park Zoo and Hale Reservation to create free outdoor learning pods, where some students will participate in outdoor enrichment activities interspersed with online learning.
At Hartsbrook, which already had some nature-based classes, outdoor learning is in full swing, with 16 canopy tents. The school has a sliding scale tuition that goes up to $22,000, with roughly half the kids paying full price, said Leslie Evans, the enrollment director. Almost all the classes now have waiting lists after a spike in interest; they’ve capped class sizes in order to make sure they have enough space if they have to go inside.
So far, the students have reveled in the outdoor experience, especially after six months online. Some transferred late in the summer, when they learned their public schools would not be in person.
“I didn’t want to have to deal with their online schooling,” said Luc Hallisey, an 18-year-old in black Chuck Taylors with pink laces, as he chipped away at a massive stone during art class in a canvas tent. Hallisey had attended Easthampton High School for the past two years, but in late July, he decided to go to Hartsbrook, seizing his only chance for a senior year in person. His friends at Easthampton wished they could be outside, too, he said.
“I show them pictures and they’re like, ‘No way! That’s so sick!’ ” he said.
Saylor Jarvis and Rachael Jones, best friends for the past 15 years, carved stones nearby. (They acknowledged feeling sorry for the students attending class in a tent a few feet away, who had been subject to the sound of steady hammering for about an hour). Jarvis and Jones said it was sometimes exhausting to be outside for the whole day, but school was going well.
“I didn’t think I was going to be able to focus as much as I am, but I still am learning a lot,” Jarvis said, plastic safety goggles perched on her head. “Being outside, I feel really nice at the end of the day.”
Learning in nature does, of course, have its distractions. Among them: planes droning overhead, chilly mornings, how “all the boys keep chucking wood chips at the chipmunks,” as a seventh-grader explained. One blackboard had a large hole in it, the result of crashing down during a fierce wind.
But it also has its incontrovertible delights. Jan Baudendistel, who has taught at the school since 1987, said her class paused briefly that morning when two pileated woodpeckers began noisily pecking at a nearby tree.
“They were having this incredible conversation,” she said. “I wouldn’t say it’s a distraction; I’d say it’s an enhancement.”