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Amidst Pandemic, Waldorf Schools See Resurgence in Outdoor Learning 
Beverly Amico

When educators think of outdoor learning, many images come to mind: third graders doing leaf collection for botany projects, forest kindergarteners on a hike, or teens out working in a community garden, for example. But researchers may define outdoor education more specifically as they study its benefits. Outdoor science fieldwork? Nature education field trips? Forest-based early childhood programs? Recess in greenspace? 

No matter how it is defined, one thing is consistent: the results of learning outdoors are overwhelmingly positive and include benefits for academic performance, health and well-being, and child development. Now, in the time of the pandemic, some educators are calling for schools to take class outside. This is not a new idea.

There is a long history of teaching students outdoors and not just for nature or science studies. Ancient Greek education often took place outside, and Plato’s philosophy of education proposed regular risk-taking and play, which happened outdoors, as a key factor in effective learning. 

Learning primarily outdoors in our modern day has its history in mid 20th century Europe -- a movement inspired by open air schools developed in the early 1900s for sick children. Tuberculosis in particular and then the flu pandemic of 1918 encouraged many educators to take learning outdoors. In fact, the Spanish flu prompted Neil S. MacDonald to write a book promoting the open-air school movement saying that in much of the US, “there is practically no temperature problem and no reason why all schools should not be open-air schools all the year round.”

Our modern sensibilities and work environments have driven us indoors, making these kinds of statements seem near revolutionary and prompting some educators to declare that being outside is expensive and impractical. While moving a classroom of 40 children and their Chromebooks outdoors on a rainy, 50 degree day is a logistical feat, Waldorf schools -- which generally take children outside for recess all year long -- are uniquely positioned to meet this and other challenges in open air classrooms. Many schools are facing these challenges head on. 

Sanderling Waldorf School was one of the first in the news at CBS-8 San Diego for their plans to move classrooms outdoors this year. As cases in California rose, the governor mandated a distance learning start for students but some schools, like Sanderling, can obtain waivers for in-person classes if they meet certain guidelines. Sanderling’s on-the-farm outdoor learning program hopes to do just that.  

Priscilla Dulin, a teacher and parent at Sanderling said: "I think we are making the best of the situation. We have several classes that are quite large so in lieu of separating them and dividing them moving outdoors seemed like the natural choice."  

While it seems almost logical that a California school might make this choice, U.S. Waldorf schools as far North as Maine are not deterred by weather. Frederick Veitch, board president at Maine Coast Waldorf School, said the decision to conduct class outside just made sense for their school community as well. The school plans to use its 75-acre campus in Freeport as a space for classrooms “where practical, feasible, and pedagogically sound.” 

He told CBS-13 WGME, “Our ability to teach outside but still have masks on protects the most vulnerable in our community, and for us that was very important, it's that it wasn't just teaching to some kids, it was the ability to teach to all kids.”

The Detroit Waldorf School is also in the news for their decision to raise $50,000 and break ground on 14 cedar wood pavilions to shelter outdoor classrooms. According to architect and school parent Brian Rebain, the plan went from an idea to breaking ground in a matter of weeks. 

Some things, like walls and flooring, are still being considered. "There's still a lot of head-scratching as we figure things out," says Rebain, but the community is supportive. As the school website says, “We are honoring the well-being of the most vulnerable members of our community while still providing a rich learning environment for the children. We believe the outdoor classrooms help us to navigate that balance.”

The Lake Champlain Waldorf School in Vermont also has a full set of plans underway for their outdoor classrooms including six new outdoor classrooms with portable chalkboards, convertible bench desks, a heat source, a rain cover, and a water-tight storage cabinet. According to head of school Jas Darland, the moods of each of the classrooms have been crafted with care. 

“We are encouraging teachers to choose teaching sites based on what's most supportive of the energy of their lesson. For example, the Honeysuckle Classroom is tucked away and almost hidden from the main path in a secret-feeling little grove. It's great for math lessons or others requiring lots of intellectual stamina because it creates a mood of being focused and tucked in and the rest of the world disappearing. The Lower Pond Classroom, on the other hand, is a semi-circle of stumps on the open shore and will be regularly 'interrupted' by snapping turtles and herons. It's great for oral reports when the students need to feel seen and 'official' and to take on that responsibility for owning their space and commanding the attention of their classmates.”   

At the Waldorf School of Dupage in Warrenville, IL, some of their nine outdoor classroom spaces will be constructed to be permanent for post-pandemic use, while others will be temporary. Faculty Chair and grades teacher Brenna McLachlan told Patch Media that the school experienced overwhelming support from their community for outdoor learning year-round as much as possible. 

"Kids can be fully back to school with their teachers, which is how they learn best," McLachlan said.

As the school year begins in earnest during the COVID-19 pandemic, even more AWSNA member schools are revealing their plans to take students outdoors either full time or part time as part of hybrid plans that incorporate in person and distance learning. In the true spirit of Waldorf education, our member schools are seeking to not only meet the whole child where they are developmentally, but to meet the immediate and future needs of our communities and our world. 

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Essentials In Education: exploring topics that matter to educators, researchers, policy experts, and thought leaders - from a Waldorf education perspective.