During this time of uncertainty caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, the term “Outdoor Classroom” has been resurrected. The research clearly shows that being outside in the fresh air is the best place for people to gather, while still maintaining a social distance and wearing masks.
The Outdoor Classroom is not a new idea or concept. When Tuberculosis and the Spanish Flu struck a century ago, schools went outside. Open-air classrooms quickly spread around the world. In the United States, the leading health expert at the time, Adolphus Knopf, the founder of the National Tuberculosis Association said, “Every school must have a large playground, classroom ventilation, and school rooms were to be washed daily, and a judicious curriculum was to include as much outdoor time as possible.” Sound familiar?
While a vaccine is on the way, and we may start seeing things get back to normal soon, Outdoor Classrooms have always been a part of the Stepping Stone School curriculum. The children of Stepping Stone School spend a great deal of time outside as long as the weather cooperates. While in the United States, the local Child Care Licensing standards dictate when it is too hot or cold for children to be outside, Scandinavian countries have Udeskoles (meaning outdoor schools) and Finland has Forest Schools where children are outside no matter what the weather is like.
In Scandinavian countries, the term for living close to nature is Friluftsliv. Living close to nature can encompass anything from hiking, to berry picking and fishing, or be as simple as going for a nature walk or bike ride near your home. Frilusftsliv is simply a chance to get outside and enjoy nature – winter or summer, day or night, rain or shine, mud, sleet, or snow. Scandinavian children enjoy more unstructured outdoor playtime – the average preschooler in Stockholm spends six hours outside each day in good weather and an impressive 90 minutes in winter.
One of the best things about nature, is it is ALWAYS OPEN! Getting outside is one of the best ways for your family to boost its resilience. Spending too much time indoors reduces your Vitamin D level. John de Pluma, MD, a board-certified internist and proponent of nature therapy points to research suggesting an association between visiting forests and improving immune responses. Scientific evidence does associate Vitamin N (N for nature) with reduced stress, better mental and physical health and greater cognitive functioning. Connecting with animals (wild and domestic) may also offset the downside of social distancing.
The following are some ways to bring your family back to nature:
- Pick a Sit Spot, Children and adults should find a special place in nature, whether it is under a tree at the end of the yard, a hidden bend of a creek, or a rooftop garden. Get to know it by day and night. In cool and warm weather, during rain or snow. Doing so can reduce your sense of isolation. Building a fort, den or tree house can help children with problem solving, creativity, planning and a sense of security and place.
- Set up a World Watching Window, If your family is lucky enough to live where stars are visible, stargaze in the evening or very early morning. Locate a few key constellations with your children and orient to those. Other world watching window activities can include cloud spotting, bird-watching, taking nature photos and recording the sounds of birds and other creatures.
- Take a hike or do other exercises outdoors, You can take walks in your neighborhood, parks or forests. Games can help you keep your child’s attention. A game called “Walk this way” involves imitating different animals along the way. Bring toys or props that will make it more fun, like hats, binoculars and walking sticks. Walkie-Talkies are also a big hit. Encourage children to take turns as the “hike leader,” walking in front and setting the pace. You can also play “find ten critters” on longer hikes. This includes discovering footprints or other signs of an animal passing through.
- Got dirt? Set aside a piece of ground in the backyard for children to dig in. Research suggests that children strengthen their immune systems by playing in dirt – and weaken those systems by avoiding dirt.
Although the many benefits of being in nature have been researched, children are spending less time outdoors than ever. Being outside in unstructured environments has numerous cognitive benefits. It is common for children to have trouble focusing in the modern world with all the stimuli from media, and technology, as well as having to sit still for long periods of time. These issues are particularly heightened with so many schools being closed or only offering virtual learning.
Schools like Stepping Stone School, which utilize the outdoors as a continuation of our indoor classrooms have reported higher student gains in academic subjects such as mathematics and language arts. Use the Pandemic as a way to create new family routines, health practices and play!