The National COVID-19 Outdoor Learning Initiative (NCOLI) was launched in the U.S. in May 2020 to help schools reopen safely and equitably by using outdoor spaces for learning and play.
Scientists tell us that COVID-19 is twenty times less likely to be transmitted outdoors than inside. This is because air circulates freely outside with none of the filtration issues that come with the recirculated air in many HVAC systems. During the 1918 flu and tuberculosis epidemics, educators and health experts knew that the free flow of air was key to reducing transmission and they found ways to make outdoor learning work. During today’s pandemic, it is possible and even optimal to adopt outdoor learning as a solution to reduce virus transmission in the school environment. Since last summer and fall schools across the country have been reopening by using outdoor learning spaces, and more join this movement each week.
Even before COVID-19 we understood that when children spend time in green natural spaces their academic performance, ability to concentrate, and overall physical and mental health are all improved. We know that the healing qualities of nature will help children recover from the trauma that many have experienced during the pandemic. In bringing children back to campus we can begin to eliminate social isolation, reconnect children to school meals and support systems, and support those who had difficulties with accessing and using online learning. The pandemic revealed vast inequity among school children. Outdoor learning can and should be planned through a lens of equity to address and mitigate disparities by prioritizing the needs of those most vulnerable—low income families, children with special needs, English language learners, and the youngest students.
According to Sharon Danks, CEO of Green Schoolyards America and coordinator of the National COVID-19 Outdoor Learning Initiative, the goal is to support schools in getting as many children as possible back to in-person school by making outdoor learning “Plan A” so that only when outdoors doesn’t work do students move indoors or online. Moving learning outdoors may be as simple as a teacher taking a group outside on a nice day to read a story under a tree, or as complex as building a set of pavilions on the campus so that every indoor classroom has an outdoor teaching space- and many options in between.
The initiative was founded by four California-based organizations: Green Schoolyards America, Ten Strands, The Lawrence Hall of Science, and the San Mateo County Schools. After the June webinar that launched it, dozens of organizations and hundreds of experts in education, design, health, planning, and other related fields came together from across the country (on Zoom of course) and volunteered their time in 11 working groups to devise ways to support schools and districts across the U.S. in reopening safely and equitably using outdoor spaces. The working groups were organized around many facets of outdoor learning including equity, outdoor infrastructure, teaching and learning, park partnerships, policy, health, program integration, and community engagement.
From June to December the working groups created the National Outdoor Learning Library—a comprehensive, free, online collection of more than 150 practical tools and resources for outdoor learning and play. Many of the resources are currently available on the Initiative’s website and more are added regularly. These include a campus assessment tool and a cost estimator that help schools get started, a variety of recorded webinars, compelling case studies from schools and districts that have added outdoor learning spaces in every region and climate of the US, and resource materials on every aspect of outdoor learning. In the section on creating outdoor spaces there are resources on seating, shade and shelter, softening paved spaces, coping with weather, clothing and gear for every season, regional plant lists, dealing with noise, and more. Other sections focus on support for teachers including outdoor teaching strategies as well as tools and supplies for outdoor teaching; there is a wealth of helpful information for schools who don’t have adequate space and campus and are looking to partner with parks and other green spaces; as well as extensive health, policy and funding guidance.
Beginning in the summer of 2020 and continuing to at least the end of this school year, the initiative has hosted a Community of Practice, a welcoming open forum which meets bimonthly on Zoom. Here people from across the US (and abroad) can gather, learn, network, share information, and get their questions answered. Each meeting may include presentations by schools and districts that are deep in planning or up and running outdoors; sharing of new resources in the National Outdoor Learning library; and a chance to network and talk in breakout sessions with others. You can register here for the Zoom link.
The Emergency Schoolyard Design Volunteers program was launched in the summer of 2020 and continues today. It includes hundreds of design professionals: practitioners, professors, and students who are volunteering their time to help schools who need thought partners in planning and visualizing how to move learning outdoors on their campus. Organized in regional teams, NCOLI provides training and support on how volunteers can best support schools, and then matches volunteers to schools requesting assistance while prioritizing low income schools with a focus on serving the most vulnerable students first.
If you’re looking for resources, design assistance, or a network of likeminded colleagues, visit the website, peruse the materials, and sign up for the help your school or district needs.
Nancy Striniste is a landscape designer who specializes in creating outdoor spaces for children. She is based in Arlington, Virginia. She has been a leader of the National COVID-19 Outdoor Learning Initiative and co-led the working group on outdoor infrastructure. You can reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org