I have a distinct memory of being in Grade 10 English class and staring out the window, waiting for the bell to ring so I could go to track practice or play baseball with my friends. Fast forward 30 years and I’m still staring out the window, only this time I’m the teacher and I haven’t seen my students in over two months.
While we are not out of the COVID-19 woods yet, Ontario is in the process of ‘reopening’ production, retail, and other services that are now appreciated in an entirely new light. Among the most visible – and delicate – areas to consider in this reopening are our schools.
Ensuring the safety and emotional readiness for students and education workers to return to large institutions with several hundred (to even several thousand!) other people is a daunting task, especially when schools are largely indoor worlds where physical distancing is nearly impossible.
When schools eventually reopen educators need to seriously reconsider the importance of getting outside throughout the school day beyond recess and lunch breaks. Many schools have outdoor education programs, yet in recent years heightened restrictions have limited the activities they can offer. The secondary school where I teach regularly organizes field trips. But increased limits on travel distances, socioeconomic factors, and even decreased student interest have led to many trips being cancelled.
So how can teachers embed outdoor learning in a responsible way moving forward?
Outdoor classrooms have seen a significant increase over the past decade, with many obvious benefits . However, I have seen these spaces being misused firsthand. Just because the sun is shining teachers shouldn’t start clamouring over the sign-up sheet without a learning goal. Whether there is a specific nature-based lesson or even taking an English class outside to read, taking advantage of the outdoor space needs a clear goal
Field trips don’t have to require travel. With a specific learning goal and administrative/parental approval try visiting local sites by walking, or even get creative on or near school property with a ‘100 metre field trip’. These can be sensory experiences, collecting material for an art project, or simply time for reading and reflection. Small trips connect students to their immediate community, and best of all, they are free or cheap.
Involve the School Community
All too often classes exist in their own little bubble, despite the ability to connect with others right down the hall. Collaborating with other classes unlocks many opportunities for community-building and leadership at all grades.
For an Earth Day cleanup several years ago my Grade 12 Outdoor Education class did a school waste audit on our property and immediate property, researched the time it would take for the different types of waste to decompose, and then partnered with our Special Education class for a school cleanup. In addition to the classes working together, we also coordinated with our administration and custodial team for a successful day. This could have easily involved our Geography and Science classes for a much larger event , and could easily be adapted for elementary students
Getting outside doesn’t mean going wild. In fact, it should be quite the opposite, especially as most classrooms rely heavily on the SmartBoard and more and more students are glued to their phones. At all ages students need to learn that by disconnecting they can reconnect with what is more important – their relationships with nature, their peers, and themselves. If possible, leave phones locked in the classroom so students are present without distraction.
Most of all, Have Fun . From kindergarten to high school graduates, the COVID-19 pandemic has removed our students from their friends, teachers, and familiar routines for several months; with this school year cancelled and even September still in question. Herding students into classrooms and confining them to a desk is not the return to school they deserve. It’s OK to let our kids be kids, and when we find our new normal let’s forget the bell and allow students to enjoy time outside – together.
Jeff Shields is an Ontario Certified Teacher in the Trillium Lakelands District School Board. When not teaching history, outdoor education, and Indigenous studies to high school students he can be found on the trail introducing his two young sons to nature.