(Photo courtesy: Painted Oak)

As schools across the country debate how to safely reopen in the fall, Lisa Wolff, executive director of New Jersey-based nonprofit Friends of Hopewell Valley Open Space, has heard her fair share of ideas — some more practical than others.

Before entering her current role, Wolff served for six years as president of the Hopewell Valley Regional Board of Education. In that time, she spearheaded environmental programming in several schools, overseeing the implementation of reusable water filling stations, rain gardens, textile recycling programs, and more.

She says that, due to her school board background, she is still in conversation with principals, superintendents and parents across Mercer County. Some districts, according to Wolff, are questioning where recess fits into reopening plans.

“They’re worried about kids touching surfaces, touching slides. So fine, close the playground,” she says. “But recess is the only outlet that kids have to get their energy out.”

Meanwhile, Nicole Langdo, founder of Painted Oak Nature School, also based in Hopewell, is confident that her classes will resume without a hitch — and with all of the socialization and exercise that make recess so important.

That’s because the most important classrooms at Painted Oak aren’t rooms at all — they’re the forests, fields and meadows near campus. Founded in 2012, the private school boasts a nature-based curriculum. Students, who range from ages 2 to 8, spend at least half of their day exploring the great outdoors, rather than sitting at desks.

The risk of transmitting coronavirus is significantly lower in open-air settings, according to experts. Those settings also offer ample space to maintain social distancing. But Langdo says that outdoor learning comes with a host of other benefits that make it a long-overdue addition to education — and not just a temporary safety measure for schools attempting to re-open.

“We hear from parents that when their child first started, they were totally fearful of spiders or slugs. Now they’re creating little habitats, encouraging them to climb on them so they can see their slug slime trail. I think embedded in all of that is a generation of children that will care for the earth. They will be the ones protesting and rallying around climate change.”

Nicole Langdo, founder of Painted Oak Nature School

Before starting Painted Oak, Langdo taught for two decades in public schools across the country. She says she left because, over the years, administrators pushed a curriculum that was increasingly rigorous, restrictive and uniform for students of varying learning styles — while rejecting her efforts to teach lessons based on play and creativity.

That’s why Painted Oak emphasizes “self-directed” learning and discovery, much of which occurs outdoors. In between guided lessons and projects, students are encouraged to roam and examine nature. Langdo says this fosters independence, resilience, and risk management skills, while also boosting curiosity and enthusiasm for learning.

“They really flourish being outside and having time to play, to run, to climb, to try dangerous things,” Langdo says. “Crossing a creek bed can feel really dangerous when you’re three, and then just the skills and the inherent confidence that comes from that is huge.”

Dr. Matluba Khan, lecturer at Cardiff University in the United Kingdom, has been researching outdoor learning for over 10 years. She says that Langdo’s observations are backed by her own studies. She’s found that students who are shy and unengaged in indoor classrooms are often more proactive and sociable in outdoor settings, and even take on leadership roles.

“I also found that children are more motivated to learn outdoors compared to an indoor environment, and they perform better in math and science exams compared to other schools which don’t have outdoor learning interventions in place,” Khan says.

And while Painted Oak is a private school with tuition rates that climb as high as $10,450 a year, Wolff is confident that parts of the school’s model could be adopted in a public school setting.

She envisions a model in which teachers assign half of the students in a class to outdoor lessons, while the remaining half stay indoors. The groups can then swap halfway through the school day, ensuring that students are sufficiently spaced out. Unstructured play and exploration can be integrated into that time, functioning similarly to recess.

Or, Wolff says, teachers can utilize outdoor spaces for special projects — from writing nature-inspired poetry in English class to learning about ecosystems in biology. As New Jersey becomes the first state in the country to make climate change a required part of K-12 curriculum, the state’s student learning standards recommend that students use schoolyards and other spaces to build habitats as they study how to protect wildlife from the effects of a warming planet.

Both Wolff and Langdo cite equity as another frequent concern. Wolff has solicited grants from local businesses to help schools across Hopewell Valley, an affluent community, construct outdoor classrooms. She acknowledges that not every school in the state has been as lucky, and that underfunded school districts in high-poverty areas will likely struggle to assemble the extra time and resources to integrate more outside activities.

But state-of-the-art facilities aren’t necessary for successful outdoor learning, according to Dr. Khan. She’s worked with schools in communities of varying income levels, in countries ranging from Bangladesh to Scotland. In her experience, schoolyards, nearby forests, community gardens and local parks are all rife with opportunities for exploration.

And according to a tool by nonprofit The Trust for Public Land, more than 90 percent of residents in New Jersey cities like Camden, Trenton and Newark live within a 10-minute walk of a park.

“Urban schools do have access. Cadwalader Park in Trenton is unbelievable,” Wolff says. “Mercer County parks offer so many beautiful places to be outside, so it isn’t for lack of availability.”

The real equity issue, according to Dr. Khan, is the fact that 50 percent of learners worldwide do not have a household computer — making Zoom lessons impossible for students who can’t afford the necessary technology. In the U.S., about 12 million students lack high-speed internet access. A significant portion of those students are Black, Hispanic, live in rural areas, or come from low-income families.

In fact, underserved communities could benefit most from outdoor education — especially in terms of addressing trauma in a post-COVID-19 world. The pandemic has disproportionately affected high-poverty communities of color, with many families out-of-work or forced to continue work under unsafe conditions. And as daycares and schools shut down, parents are left without alternatives for childcare — and children are left without the social interaction necessary for their development and wellbeing.

“We really don’t know what some children have experienced, being at home for months. It can certainly run the gamut,” Langdo says. “Parents have needed to keep working and leave children at home unsupervised. We’ve heard of statistics of domestic violence increasing during this time. Nature is very healing for people, physically, mentally, emotionally.”

But to Langdo, one of the most important benefits of outdoor education isn’t to the kids — it’s to nature. She has seen firsthand how outdoor education increases students’ empathy for bugs, birds and everything in between, turning them into stewards for the environment.

In her view, that compassion for the natural world is crucial to fostering a generation of activists pushing for climate action, and for future scientists and conservationists drafting environmental protections.

“We hear from parents that when their child first started, they were totally fearful of spiders or slugs. Now they’re creating little habitats, encouraging them to climb on them so they can see their slug slime trail,” Langdo says. “I think embedded in all of that is a generation of children that will care for the earth. They will be the ones protesting and rallying around climate change.”

This story was produced in collaboration with CivicStory and the New Jersey Sustainability Reporting project. It was originally reported by Brianna Baker for Next City, and may be re-distributed through the Creative Commons License, with attribution.

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