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A Breath of Fresh Air: Outdoor Education in Pandemic Times & Beyond

Co-authored by Marcel Harmon and Morgan Barrett


Environmental education, and the organizations like KACEE that promote it, have been an invaluable resource to educators who, over the course of the pandemic, found themselves in need of escaping the indoors. Environmental education (EE) organizations have offered curricula and activities applicable to outdoor settings for in-person, hybrid and fully remote delivery methods.


Many of KACEE’s state partners, including the Konza Nature Preserve, Kansas Wetlands Education Center (FHSU), and Sunset Zoo, among many others, converted their in-person EE programs into virtual formats for students to access from home over the spring and summer of 2020. Activity information and instruction were largely presented online, but outdoor activities were included and encouraged as part of the at-home learning. In addition, our EE curriculum providers like Project Learning Tree, Project WET, and Project WILD encouraged participation in their outdoor activities by pushing their curricula through social media to parents and students to do at home. Smartphone nature apps, like iNaturalist, became a go-to source for environmental education during the pandemic’s early days, encouraged by educators as a way for parents to engage their children in outdoor learning.


Similar EE efforts, like those in Washington, D.C., have been funded through the Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief (ESSER) dollars already provided - the initial ESSER Fund, part of the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act, and the ESSER II Fund, part of the Coronavirus Response and Relief Supplemental Appropriations (CRRSA) Act. Now, with the additional $122 billion provided by the ESSER III Fund, part of the American Rescue Plan (ARP) Act, and the potential for additional funding if an infrastructure bill is passed, we may be able to further support environmental education initiatives that also address pandemic related needs.


We have an opportunity to equitably improve... health and wellness overall, the learning environment, energy and water efficiency, other aspects of sustainability, and creating a better connection to, and understanding of, “nature,” or the non-human built world.

We have an opportunity to equitably improve the safety of our school facilities relative to SARS-CoV-2 and other pathogens while also improving health and wellness overall, the learning environment, energy and water efficiency, other aspects of sustainability, and creating a better connection to, and understanding of, “nature,” or the non-human built world. One broad example of this is finding ways to integrate the intersection of the outdoor environment, indoor environment, environmental issues (like air quality), and facility operations into existing curricula.


Some ways to do this include creating formal and informal outdoor classrooms and bringing the outdoors into our indoor classrooms, supported by summer programs and after school programs through EE providers as well as professional development in EE. For example, KACEE is involved in the development of national and statewide recommendations - eeGuidance: Growing Healthy Schools Through Outdoor & Environmental Learning - for using a portion of the ESSER funds allocated for environmental education purposes. These recommendations will be released before the 2021-2022 school year begins, with the help of a national advocacy campaign, advanced by an EE advocate coalition and NAAEE.



KACEE is involved in the development of national and statewide recommendations - eeGuidance: Growing Healthy Schools Through Outdoor & Environmental Learning - for using a portion of the ESSER funds allocated for environmental education purposes.

The eeGuidance is an exciting effort which will hopefully strengthen the merit of ongoing requests for outdoor teaching and learning opportunities. One of KACEE’s current Board Members, Leonore Enfield, has been a longtime advocate for creating outdoor classrooms at the schools in which she has worked, including at her current school, Lyons Middle School in Lyons, Kansas. The COVID-19 pandemic created a wider platform for espousing the benefits and practicality of outdoor classrooms as inadequate mechanical system ventilation and filtration along with the need to de-densify classrooms created significant challenges for safely and effectively teaching in indoor settings.


Use of ESSER funds to improve a school building’s ventilation and filtration provides opportunities for students to better understand building system operations, the reciprocal relationships between our built environment and the natural world, and the impacts of those relationships on human health. Students could be involved in assessing current building system capabilities as well as monitoring the performance after improvements have been implemented. The Harvard T.C. Chan School of Public Health’s 5 Step Guide to Checking Ventilation Rates in Classrooms provides guidance on how to use a simple CO2 monitor either alone or with dry ice to verify room fresh air delivery rates, something students could easily be a part of. This method can be used to baseline a system’s existing capabilities as well as its performance after improvements have been made (though ideally the improvements would also include a more formal means of air quality monitoring with dashboards for display).


Students and teachers could also make use of online risk calculation tools like BranchPattern’s Facility Infection Risk Estimator v2.1 or the 2020_COVID-19_Aerosol_Transmission_Estimator to estimate the risk of infection before and after improvements have been made, providing an opportunity to learn about airborne viral transmission and building focused mitigation measures. Indoor air quality is also tied to outdoor air quality, impacting building system filter selection and the amount of outdoor air that can be brought inside. Ventilation and filtration solutions can be more difficult and more costly in areas with poor outdoor air quality. Air quality is also negatively impacted by our consumption of fossil fuels, and the more of this “dirty” power a school building consumes, the greater the air pollution (as well as greenhouse gas emissions) it contributes to. Curriculum that incorporates analyses of building energy consumption, associated greenhouse gas emissions, and impacts on air quality may not be new, but they’re still very relevant.


Air quality is also negatively impacted by our consumption of fossil fuels, and the more of this “dirty” power a school building consumes, the greater the air pollution (as well as greenhouse gas emissions) it contributes to.

The need for, and benefits of, COVID safe buildings, bringing the outdoors inside, outdoor classrooms and other EE related initiatives will continue long after we eventually drive the virus to an endemic status. Environmental education leads to opportunities for increased outdoor access among our youth, and research has demonstrated that greater connections to the outdoors improves physical health (Bell et al. 2008; Boone-Heinonen et al. 2010; Louv 2005), mental health and resilience (Bagot 2015; Han 2008; Kaplan 1995; Li and Sullivan 2016; Louv 2005; Taylor et al. 2001), and learning and cognitive development (Arbogast et al. 2009; Blair 2009; Louv 2005; Merchant et al. 2019; Principe 2011; Taylor et al. 2001). Our youth suffer from a deficit of exposure to the outdoors (CDC 2005; Louve 2005; Kellert 2005; Principe 2011), and the ESSER funds offer an opportunity to reduce that deficit.


The need for, and benefits of, COVID safe buildings, bringing the outdoors inside, outdoor classrooms and other EE related initiatives will continue long after we eventually drive the virus to an endemic status.

We also know that environmental education and contact with nature is critical for providing an understanding of the intricate and interdependent connections children and their communities have with the “natural” environment, locally to globally (Cole et al. 2019; Collado et al. 2015; Hinds and Sparks 2008; Zangori and Cole 2019). Such an understanding is necessary to create a recognition of the need to, and an understanding of how to, address issues of climate change and environmental injustices (Wells and Lekies 2006; Wray-Lake et al. 2010). It also allows our youth to live richer lives and be more complete humans by reclaiming their legacy afforded by the evolutionary history of this planet. We would be wise to find ways to implement this Federal funding in a manner that also increases students’ direct exposure to the natural world and integrates nature into our interior and exterior school environments (e.g., Blair 2009; Dennis et al. 2014; Knox and Davis 2010; Zangori and Cole 2019), as well as integrates all of this into curriculum (e.g., Cole 2019; Cole et al. 2019; Merchant et al. 2019; Zangori and Cole 2019).


We... know that environmental education and contact with nature is critical for providing an understanding of the intricate and interdependent connections children and their communities have with the “natural” environment...

Using Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief Funds to Support Environmental and
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Igniting Learning in Outdoor Classrooms
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Energizing Students and Schools with Green Schools
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Supporting Outdoor Experiences with Teacher Professional Learning
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Power Up Learning through Field Experiences
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Some resources for using Federal funding in a way that increases students’ direct exposure to the natural world and integrates nature into our interior and exterior school environments are as follows:




References


Arbogast, K. L., B. C. P. Kane, J. L. Kirwan, and B. R. Hertel. 2009. Vegetation and outdoor recess time at elementary schools: What are the connections? Journal of Environmental Psychology 29(4):450-456. ISSN 0272-4944. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jenvp.2009.03.002.


Bagot, K. L., F. C. L. Allen, and S. Toukhsati. 2015. Perceived restorativeness of children's school playground environments: Nature, playground features and play period experiences. Journal of Environmental Psychology 41:1-9. ISSN 0272-4944. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jenvp.2014.11.005.


Bell, J. F., J. S. Wilson, and G. C. Liu. 2008. Neighborhood greenness and 2-year changes in body mass index of children and youth. American journal of preventive medicine, 35(6):547–553. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.amepre.2008.07.006.


Blair, Dorothy. 2009. The Child in the Garden: An Evaluative Review of the Benefits of School Gardening. The Journal of Environmental Education 40(2):15-38, DOI: 10.3200/JOEE.40.2.15-38.


Boone-Heinonen, J., K. Casanova, A. S. Richardson, and P. Gordon-Larsen. 2010. Where can they play? Outdoor spaces and physical activity among adolescents in U.S. urbanized areas. Preventive medicine 51(3-4):295–298. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.ypmed.2010.07.013.


Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). 2005. Barriers to Children Walking to or from School --- United States, 2004. Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report (MMWR) 54(38):949-952. https://www.cdc.gov/mmwr/preview/mmwrhtml/mm5438a2.htm.


Cole, L. B. Green building literacy: a framework for advancing green building education. International Journal of STEM Education 6:18. https://doi.org/10.1186/s40594-019-0171-6.


Cole, L. B., J. Quinn, A. Akturk, and B. Johnson. 2019. Promoting green building literacy through online laboratory experiences. International Journal of Sustainability in Higher Education 20(2):264-287. https://doi.org/10.1108/IJSHE-09-2018-0149.


Collado, S., J. A. Corraliza, H. Staats, and M. Ruiz. 2015. Effect of frequency and mode of contact with nature on children's self-reported ecological behaviors. Journal of Environmental Psychology 41:65-73. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jenvp.2014.11.001.


Dennis, S. F., A. Wells and C. Bishop. 2014. A Post-Occupancy Study of Nature-Based Outdoor Classrooms in Early Childhood Education. Children, Youth and Environments 24(2):35-52. https://doi.org/10.7721/chilyoutenvi.24.2.0035.


Han, K.-T. 2009. Influence of Limitedly Visible Leafy Indoor Plants on the Psychology, Behavior, and Health of Students at a Junior High School in Taiwan. Environment and Behavior 41(5):658–692. https://doi.org/10.1177/0013916508314476.


Hinds, J. and P. Sparks. Engaging with the natural environment: The role of affective connection and identity. Journal of Environmental Psychology 28(2):109-120. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jenvp.2007.11.001.


Kaplan, S. The restorative benefits of nature: Toward an integrative framework. Journal of Environmental Psychology 15(3):169-182. https://doi.org/10.1016/0272-4944(95)90001-2.


Kellert, S. R. 2005. Building for Life: Designing and Understanding the Human-Nature Connection. Island Press, Washington, D.C.


Knox, W. and S. Davis 2010. Nature as the Teacher: Manassas Park Elementary School and Prekindergarten Case Study. High Performing Buildings Fall:36-45. https://www.hpbmagazine.org/manassas-park-elementary-school-and-prekindergarten-manassas-park-va/.


Li, D. and W. C. Sullivan. 2016. Impact of views to school landscapes on recovery from stress and mental fatigue. Landscape and Urban Planning 148:149-158. ISSN 0169-2046. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.landurbplan.2015.12.015.


Louv, R. 2005. Last child in the woods: Saving our children from nature-deficit disorder. Chapel Hill, North Carolina: Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill.


Marchant, E., C. Todd, R. Cooksey, S. Dredge, H. Jones, et al. 2019. Curriculum-based outdoor learning for children aged 9-11: A qualitative analysis of pupils’ and teachers’ views. PLOS ONE 14(5):e0212242. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0212242.


Principe, G. F. 2011. Your Brain on Childhood: The Unexpected Side Effects of Classrooms, Ballparks, Family Rooms, and the Minivan. Prometheus Books, Amherst, NY.


Taylor, A. F., F. E. Kuo, & W. C. Sullivan. 2001. Coping with add: The Surprising Connection to Green Play Settings. Environment and Behavior 33(1):54–77. https://doi.org/10.1177/00139160121972864.


Wells, N. M. and K. S. Lekies. 2006. Nature and the life course: Pathways from childhood nature experiences to adult environmentalism. Children, Youth and Environments 16(1):41663. https://www.jstor.org/stable/10.7721/chilyoutenvi.16.1.0001.


Wray-Lake, L., C. A. Flanagan, and D. W. Osgood. 2010. Examining Trends in Adolescent Environmental Attitudes, Beliefs, and Behaviors Across Three Decades. Environment and behavior 42(1):61–85. https://doi.org/10.1177/0013916509335163.


Zangori, L. and L. Cole. 2019. Assessing the contributions of green building practices to ecological literacy in the elementary classroom: an exploratory study. Environmental Education Research 25(11):1674-1696, DOI: 10.1080/13504622.2019.1662372.



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