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BY TIMOTHY A. SCHULER

The movement for well-designed outdoor classrooms gets a push from the pandemic.

FROM THE NOVEMBER 2020 ISSUE OF LANDSCAPE ARCHITECTURE MAGAZINE.

 

When students returned to Portland Public Schools in Maine this fall, they did so in classrooms that looked at least somewhat like what many outdoor learning advocates have long envisioned: rings of tree stumps arranged in a forest clearing, chairs spread across grassy lawns, upturned buckets placed between raised garden beds. These makeshift learning spaces were a response not to the overwhelming evidence that outdoor education improves health and academic performance, but to the need to reduce the transmission of COVID-19.

Caught between the risks of COVID-19 and the uncertainty of online learning, school administrators have embraced outdoor learning at an unprecedented pace. In the past, explains Sashie Misner, ASLA, a landscape architect and volunteer with Portland’s Rapid Response Outdoor Classroom Initiative, outdoor classroom projects “have been bottom up, working with a teacher who is interested in doing this. So you’re trying to convince the administration. Now, it’s the administration saying, ‘We really need this.’ So it’s a whole different thing, and you have to grab it and push it as far as you can.”

Misner is one of 21 volunteers helping schools identify potential locations for outdoor classrooms and think through issues such as access, acoustics, and shade. The pro bono effort, which is coordinated by the Portland Society for Architecture and the longtime green schoolyards advocate Laura Newman, was launched in July 2020 and is part of a larger, nationwide mobilization led by Green Schoolyards America.

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