Not Just a Boon for Health and Safety, Fresh Air Benefits Teaching and Learning, Too

Bill Fisher
When Shore reopened its doors to all students this September after being closed since March due to the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, the school put into action a comprehensive set of health and safety protocols aimed at combating the spread of COVID-19 and making in-person learning as safe as possible. Chief among these new protocols—alongside mask-wearing and social distancing—is a heavy reliance on fresh air circulation and outdoor teaching and learning to keep the airborne virus at bay. Now, thanks to this fresh-air approach, Shore students at every grade level are spending more time outdoors than ever before, and the benefits are proving to extend well beyond just health and safety.

Shore students have always spent plenty of time outdoors during daily recess and physical education periods, Upper School sports, service and project-based learning, and experiential learning in Shore’s garden and wetland spaces. This fall, outdoor time has increased significantly: teachers at all grade levels conduct numerous classes per week outside in tented areas built for the purpose, lunch is often eaten outdoors, and recess and outdoor breaks are even more frequent than usual. On any visit to Shore’s Upper Fields, it’s not uncommon to see a half dozen—or more—socially-distanced groups in action at once, all taking advantage of the abundance of grassy spaces. Upper Schoolers may participate in a Harkness-style discussion-in-the-round, strum the guitar in music class, practice yoga, or do research on their iPads, while Lower Schoolers might enjoy a pickup soccer game, free-reading period, Spanish lesson, or snack. By virtue of being outdoors, all of these activities are safer than their indoor counterparts when it comes to the coronavirus: students can sit, stand, and play farther from their peers than in a classroom setting, and fresh air is abundant.

Yet virus prevention is not the only benefit of outdoor learning. A growing body of research demonstrates that it helps children in numerous ways. Much like in adults, being outdoors can reduce stress, restore depleted attention, and improve immune function in children; kids who are healthier, calmer, and less depleted may simply learn better. Studies have found that teaching outdoors increases students’ interest in a subject and motivation to learn, and may help them to retain information longer than regular indoor classes. And research has shown that there’s even a carry-over effect from outdoor learning when children return to the classroom: they’re more focused and attentive for their indoor learning, too.

According to Head of School Clair Ward, being outdoors supports the differentiated instruction and attention to social-emotional learning that are already intrinsic in the Shore education. “The outdoors is so much more accommodating for the wide range of learning and physical styles that the children have. Blurring the line between indoors and outdoors allows students to function more fluidly, both socially and academically—their learning is no longer confined to either indoor or outdoor spaces. Anything is possible anywhere.” As an added benefit for children and families, says Ward, students are heading home at the end of the day “more happily tired than ever!”

Teachers are noticing the changes at every grade level. Pre-K lead teacher Beth White says, “We tell our parents, ‘If your child doesn’t come home dirty, they haven’t had enough fun at school today!’ And it’s true—when the children are outdoors, they have incredible freedom to explore, to create imaginary worlds, and to play on their own and together.” Lower School physical education teacher Lynn Pisanelli has observed positive changes in her youngest students, too. “Outdoors, they seem able to focus for much longer periods of time, even though a lot may be going on around them.” First grade teacher Mary Kinahan notes, “My students are much more attuned to the details around them—they’re making more and more observations about the world on their own. And then, when we reflect on our days, the children are eager to share things that they’ve noticed.” Fifth grade teacher Amanda Berg adds that even outdoor lunchtime has benefits. “Eating lunch outdoors every day has been wonderful for all of us. We can eat at a leisurely pace, and the children have time to sit and chat with their friends.” Second grade teacher Laura Thompson agrees, “One of the highlights of our day is a picnic lunch on the fields.”

The benefits are just as apparent for Upper Schoolers. World language teacher Pamela Torres says, “I’ve noticed that the more we play outside, the easier it is to focus on academics when the time comes. Our advisory group organizes games to play, relaxes over lunch with great conversations, and enjoys each others’ company.” History teacher Sarah Sklarsky affirms, “Honestly, I love teaching outdoors. Students have plenty of space to work individually or in small groups, so they can really get in a groove on whatever assignment or conversation they are approaching. It also allows students to better adapt to their own learning needs—a student who likes quiet can seek it out, while a student who likes collaboration can find that, too.” Physical education teacher and Athletics Director Nancy McNall points out, “Now that we are routinely having class outside each day, the kids are thriving. They’re focused, they’re active, and they’re having fun together. Being back at school and being outdoors is a win-win!”

Head of Lower School Sara Knox sees benefits for the adults at school, as well. She admits, “Observing teachers and children in our outdoor spaces has frankly been a highlight for me during a time that can otherwise be stressful. Being outdoors is an opportunity for all of us, adults and kids alike, to feel a bit more free—less restricted by the protocols that are necessary to keep everyone safe.” Sarah Sklarsky explains, “Being outside means that teachers and students alike need to be more flexible and adaptable, which allows us to let go of trying to make everything perfect in favor of making progress each day and making meaning out of our time together.”

With so many benefits for all members of the school community, it’s no surprise that Clair Ward is thinking of making the increase in outdoor time permanent. “I think the whole culture of outdoor time has changed at Shore, and I am committed to preserving it even when we no longer have to contend with the current circumstances.”