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Outdoor learning spaces necessitated by pandemic now here to stay

Published: May. 23, 2022 at 4:43 PM EDT
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SHELBURNE, Vt. (WCAX) - Many schools turned to outdoor learning out of necessity in the early stages of the pandemic. Guidelines have evolved since then but some schools are still taking advantage of outdoor learning.

Shea Saint John’s second-graders start their day soaking up the sun.

“That game started as a way to still incorporate playing together in the morning and staying 6 feet apart,” Saint John said.

These students at the Lake Champlain Waldorf School in Shelburne spend well over half their day outside.

“You can have a lot of space to run around,” said Celia, a second-grader.

Last year, the 175 students who go to school there spent the entire day outside to manage COVID-19, no matter the weather.

Now, they allow indoor learning but are outside as much as possible. Outdoor lessons include everything from music to theater to rolling out blackboards and doing bookwork.

“The weather changes it very little,” Head of School Jas Darland said. “By and large it changes what clothing they’re wearing.”

Darland says the threshold for when they call off outdoor learning is negative 18 degrees.

“I came up here from Georgia; I didn’t know that was a real temperature. But our students are really tough and resilient,” Darland said.

She says they’ve always promoted outdoor education but the pandemic made outdoor learning less structured and more frequent.

“Our teachers have learned to make any space an outdoor classroom and that’s something that’ll continue long after the pandemic,” Darland said.

Some new outside additions since the pandemic include a daily assembly at the amphitheater, tents and tables, and more spaces for students to congregate.

Outdoor learning also achieved its original goal, of containing COVID. Darland says they didn’t have a single case transmitted in school until two months ago.

The Lake Champlain Waldorf School isn’t the only school still taking to the great outdoors. The Vermont Tent Company says two districts in the state are using their tents for the entire spring.

Experts say outdoor schooling can benefit children.

“Kids seem happier. Kids seem less anxious and even though it may be counterintuitive, it does seem like being outdoors also helps kids focus and helps with their attention and helps them learn in a little bit more of an effective way,” said Dr. Jeremiah Dickerson, a child psychiatrist at UVM.

Dickerson says outdoor learning can allow for a more stable mood and can even help with sleep.

“I think there’s still a lot of questions, but I’m hopeful that folks will think about some of the kind of the silver linings of the pandemic and really hold on to what’s working and continue to be creative,” Dickerson said.

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