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How Forest Schools Are Helping Schools Return

Video Transcription

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

These students wondering 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 are 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.

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

Why do you think it might be adaptive or beneficial to have widened pupils when you’re stressed?


It lets more light in so you can see more?

Put your hand up high.

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

We move them over and now we have five 10s.

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

This is really nice because we’re still doing like school work and stuff but then we get to do things like this, and fun projects.

Okay, what have we got?

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?


At our school, it is a tool, and it is seen as a tool.

Tony Dice is one of the founders of Trackers Earth Forest School. Forest School is where the classroom does not have walls. It’s how kids originally learned. They didn’t learn sitting in desks facing a teacher, they learned from a multi-sensory environment. 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 towards younger students, from Tiny Trees preschool in Washington, squirrel head to Wahatchee Forest School in Tennessee.

The idea is that the challenges that come with being outside all day, dealing with weather, 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.

Parent Sarah Lewis Ship, 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 six feet apart, none of our buildings were built with enough space for kids to be six feet apart.

Sharon Danks is one of the leaders of the National Covid-19 Outdoor Learning Initiative, a non-profit 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.

We’ve been learning outside as a time-tested approach. We saw this happen a hundred years ago in the Spanish Flu and Tuberculosis pandemics, where classes literally just picked up their chairs and tables and went outside.

That’s right, these are pictures of New York City classrooms in the early 1900s.

Danks 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 caf├ęs and suddenly overnight we had all of them, so we can do the same for this.

It’s complicated of course, outdoor schooling involves a puzzle of weather and regulations and budget issues.

A well-funded private school in Portland, Oregon is one thing, but what about a public school in Portland, Maine? Surprisingly chilly Maine of all places, has been quick to embrace outdoor learning.

That my best pitch for getting outside is that it ignites a curiosity in students that we don’t necessarily see when they’re confined between four walls of their home, or in a classroom.

Brook Taller 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. The district isn’t all outside all the time, but certain classes like art have moved outdoors to help kids space apart. Supplies came from a combination of Federal pandemic relief funds and local donations.

And while Maine has plenty of open space, Sharon Danks believes schools in major cities, could have green classrooms hiding underneath their pavement.

We have a few hundred landscape architects all across the country who have volunteered to be a thought partner with schools that want help figuring out where on their grounds would be best for outdoor learning. For now it’s been a largely grass roots effort.

We have something like that.

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, remembrance that we need to be thinking about the Earth in our academics too.