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Schools without walls: Lessons in outdoor education

Forest schools: Lessons in outdoor education
Forest schools: Lessons in outdoor education 06:04

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.

Children trek to class at the Trackers Earth Forest School in the woods of Oregon.  CBS News

"Rain or shine, we're out here," said teacher Christine Fleener. "Sometimes we build a shelter." 

On this surprisingly nice day, Fleener's class of fifth graders headed to a meadow for a biology lesson.

She asked her students: "Why do you think it might be adaptive or beneficial to have widened pupils when you're stressed? Enid?"

"Like, it lets more light in so you can see more?" Enid replied.

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

Students attend class outdoors, at Portland's Trackers Earth Forest School.  CBS News

One student, Brennan, said, "This is just really nice, because we're still doing, like, schoolwork and stuff. But then we get to do things like this, and fun projects.'

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

Correspondent Conor Knighton said, "If I would've brought a knife to school, I would've gotten expelled. At your school, it's encouraged?"

"Yeah, at our school, it is a tool, and it is seen as a tool," said Tony Deis, one of the founders of Trackers Earth Forest School.

"Forest school is where the classroom does not have walls," he said. "It's how kids originally learned; they didn't learn sitting in desks, facing forward, looking at 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 toward younger students, from Tiny Trees preschool in Washington, to Wauhatchie 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.

A class visitor.  CBS News

"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," said parent Suzy Lewis-Ship, who 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," said Sharon Danks, 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: "Moving learning outside is a time-tested approach," said Danks. "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."

These are pictures of New York City classrooms in the early 1900s:

New York City held classes outdoors during the Spanish Flu epidemic. CBS News

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 use to have so many sidewalk cafes, and suddenly overnight we had all of them. 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. 

"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," said Brooke Teller, who 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," Teller said. "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, Danks believes schools in major cities could have green classrooms hiding underneath their pavement.

She said, "We have a few hundred 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."

Knighton asked, "Does it surprise you that there's not a larger government push for this, that it's having to come up through volunteers?"

"Yes!" Danks laughed. "Indeed, indeed, I mean, you know, we wish our government had jumped in last year and said, 'We know, we can help.'"

For now, it's been a largely grassroots effort – 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.

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

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Story produced by Anthony Laudato. Editor: Joseph Frandino. 

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