Outdoor Classrooms

I love being outdoors. I spend as much time outdoors as I possibly can; some of you may have even noticed from our Zoom class sessions that I tend to be outdoors more often than not even during those meetings (no, those are not Zoom backgrounds). Generally, if I can be outdoors, I am. Thus, it should come as no surprise that I have always been interested in the idea of holding classes outdoors. As Henry David Thoreau wrote in Walden, “To the sick the doctors wisely recommend a change of air and scenery.” In light of what has happened in the world with COVID-19 this year, I think this quote takes on new meaning.

When I began thinking about this idea for a blog post, I did a quick search hoping to find an article or two discussing the benefits of having outdoor classes. I know that I learn better, pay attention better, and generally feel better outdoors, and I am sure I am not alone. However, instead, I came across an article written by Tracey Birdwell and Tripp Harris, both from Indiana State University, entitled “Outdoor classes hold promise for in-person learning amid COVID-19”. A link to the article can be found here. This was very interesting to me because it is something I had thought about when this situation first presented itself. However, I never gave the idea much credit. In my field of study (Forestry) I am sure there would be many people interested in the idea of outdoor classes. We already have labs outdoors in many of the classes, and students seem to be more engaged in those labs than they are in the indoor lectures. However, this is in a field about the outdoors. I assumed that the majority of people in other fields of study would not care for outdoor classes, at least long-term. However, this article seems to suggest different.

This article points out that while most colleges are focused on either in-person, online, or hybrid classes this fall, that outdoor classes pose a fourth option that is being widely overlooked. There are a few colleges, however, that are giving outdoor classes a go. Rice University in Houston, Texas has added five open-air tents and four temporary buildings for in-person outdoor classes this year. The tents can accommodate classes of 25-30 while the temporary buildings can accommodate classes of up to 50. These tents and buildings have been connected to electricity to support heating, cooling, lighting, and the use of electronics. While they have been constructed for use during the current pandemic, the university plans to use the spaces in the future as well. Similarly, Amherst College in Amherst, Massachusetts purchased and set up 20 tents for outdoor classes, hoping to have a near-normal fall semester at their small college. Eckerd College in St. Petersburg, Florida encouraged outdoor instruction this fall, creating a map and reservation system for all available outdoor spaces with Wi-Fi access and appropriate shade and wind conditions. Other colleges and universities, including Claremont McKenna College and Arizona State University, have encouraged outdoor meetings and instruction when weather permits, adding outdoor infrastructure to accommodate.

As the article points out, several studies support that being outside helps students learn, and also suggest that there are positive associations between memory function and the emotions students experience while outside. Additionally, the article states that students’ mental health may benefit from more time outdoors. This is especially relevant during these times of COVID. I have always felt that I would enjoy making an effort in the future to host some of my classes outdoors. I believe it would be a nice change for both students and teachers. However, I recognize that there are often logistical issues, such as lack of infrastructure, weather constraints, large class sizes, etc. While these are real constraints, I think the benefits would be well worth the resources spent investigating outdoor instruction. It will be interesting to see the results from colleges like the ones mentioned above that have invested in outdoor instruction during this pandemic. I believe they might provide useful insights into the benefits and logistics of increased outdoor instruction in the future.

Birdwell, T., & Harris, T. (2020, August 21). Outdoor classes hold promise for in-person learning amid COVID-19. The Conversation. https://theconversation.com/outdoor-classes-hold-promise-for-in-person-learning-amid-covid-19-144536

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