• Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.

Forest schools: Lessons in outdoor education

  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.

Forest schools, in which students are instructed outside rather than in classrooms, have become a learning experience for many – and have added benefits in a time of pandemic. Correspondent Conor Knighton visits an immersive forest school in Oregon, where being outdoors all day – even in inclement weather – becomes part of the learning process.

Video Transcript

- Schools across the country are struggling with the question of just how to bring kids safely back into classrooms, which is why as Conor Knighton discovered, some schools are looking outside the classroom, way outside.

CONOR KNIGHTON: These students wandering through the woods on the outskirts of Portland, Oregon aren't on a school field trip. This muddy field is their school. From the moment they're dropped off in the morning, they spend their entire day outside in one of Oregon's public parks.

- Rain or shine, we're out here. Sometimes we build a shelter.

CONOR KNIGHTON: On this surprisingly nice day, Christine Fleener's class of fifth graders heads to a meadow for a biology lesson.

CHRISTINE FLEENER: Why do you think it might be adaptive or beneficial to have widened pupils when you're stressed? Enid?

- It lets more light in so you can see more.

- Put your hand up high.

CONOR KNIGHTON: Further down the trail, a group of fourth graders is learning on logs.

- We move them over. And now we have, 5/10.

CONOR KNIGHTON: On the banks of a small stream, the older kids are building a bridge to get from one side of their classroom to the other.

- This is just really nice because we're still doing schoolwork and stuff. But then we get to do things like this and fun projects.

- OK, what do we got?

CONOR KNIGHTON: It's school, just not the type of school you might be used to.

If I would have brought a knife to school, I would have gotten expelled. At your school, it's encouraged.

TONY DEIS: Yeah, at our school it is a tool. And it is seen as a tool.

CONOR KNIGHTON: Tony Deis is one of the founders of Trackers Earth Forest School.

TONY DEIS: Forest School is where the classroom does not have walls. It's how kids originally learned. They didn't learn sitting in desks, facing forward, looking at a teacher. They learned from a multisensory environment.

CONOR KNIGHTON: Immersive outdoor forest schools are especially popular in Europe. But over the past decade, they've gained traction in the United States. Most are geared toward younger students, from Tiny Trees Preschool in Washington--

- Squirrel head.

CONOR KNIGHTON: --to Wahatchie Forest School in Tennessee. The idea is that the challenges that come with being outside all day, dealing with whether, building your own shelter, unearthing the unexpected are all part of the learning process.

- That kind of whole body learning, where you're out there in it, it feels like you come away with more authentic education from that than you do from worksheets.

CONOR KNIGHTON: Parent Susie Lewis Shipp enrolled her son in Trackers three years ago for the educational benefits. But now there's a whole new benefit to outdoor education, stopping the spread of COVID.

- If you're trying to have classes with kids 6 feet apart, none of our buildings were built with enough space for kids to be 6 feet apart.

CONOR KNIGHTON: Sharon Denks is one of the leaders of the National COVID-19 Outdoor Learning Initiative, a nonprofit that's been working to help all types of schools around the country move their classes outside during the pandemic. It's an idea that's worked before.

- Moving learning outside is a time-tested approach. We saw this happen 100 years ago in the Spanish flu and tuberculosis pandemics, where classes literally just picked up their chairs and tables and went outside.

CONOR KNIGHTON: That's right. These are pictures of New York City classrooms in the early 1900s. Denks feels that outdoor classrooms are key to getting students back to in-person learning ASAP.

- We made this leap of imagination very quickly for restaurants, right? We didn't used to have so many sidewalk cafes. And suddenly overnight, we had all of them. We can do the same for this.

CONOR KNIGHTON: It's complicated, of course. Outdoor schooling involves a puzzle of weather and regulations and budget issues.

- Now, we have 10 tents here.

CONOR KNIGHTON: A well-funded private school in Portland, Oregon is one thing. But--

- This way, guys.

CONOR KNIGHTON: --what about a public school in Portland, Maine?

- And deer is-- can you say it? Nulka.

CONOR KNIGHTON: Surprisingly, chilly Maine, of all places, has been quick to embrace outdoor learning.

- My best pitch for getting outside is that it ignites a curiosity and students that we don't necessarily see when they're confined between four walls of their home or in a classroom.

CONOR KNIGHTON: Brooke Teller is the outdoor learning coordinator for Portland Public Schools, a position that's brand new.

- We realized people would feel much more comfortable coming back to school outdoors rather than indoors, where they had not been with large groups of people since last March.

- Vertical lines go up.

- We actually expanded our efforts. And we have 156 outdoor learning sites at our 17 buildings.

CONOR KNIGHTON: The district isn't all outside all the time. But certain classes, like art, have moved outdoors to help kids space apart.

- Everybody choose a print.

CONOR KNIGHTON: Supplies came from a combination of federal pandemic relief funds and local donations. And while Maine has plenty of open space, Sharon Denks believe schools in major cities could have green classrooms hiding underneath their pavement.

- We have a few landscape architects all across the country who have volunteered to be a thought partner with schools that want to help figuring out where on their grounds would be best for outdoor learning.

CONOR KNIGHTON: For now, it's been a largely grassroots effort.

- We have something like that.

CONOR KNIGHTON: Teachers and schools, public and private helping each other and sharing information about what works. For Maine teacher Katie West, the outdoor education experiment has been a learning experience.

- Well, I would say that being outdoors, my experience is students are naturally alive and awake and curious. So I think COVID has really opened that remembrance that we need to be thinking about the Earth in our academics too.