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As the pandemic persists, more schools embrace outdoor classes

A MARTINEZ, HOST:

Getting kids back in school has come with a lot of concerns. Schools have had to figure out how to make classrooms safer with masks, better ventilation and social distancing. Meanwhile, schools also have taken the classroom outside altogether. That concept of teaching outdoors is something a few had already embraced even before the pandemic. Madeline Fox of Wisconsin Public Radio reports.

MADELINE FOX, BYLINE: While outdoor learning got a big pandemic boost, groups like Green Schoolyards America have been working to bring kids outside for years. CEO Sharon Danks says it was about to hit a tipping point before the pandemic.

SHARON DANKS: But the addition of outdoor spaces as a way to reduce virus transmission drove everyone all over the country outside to spend more time outside, and I think people found that they were incredibly happy out there.

FOX: Danks says her group has seen almost a tenfold increase in interest from school districts across the country. Green Schoolyards works with mostly urban school districts on using and building outdoor spaces, and has found that weather isn't always an obstacle.

DANKS: For example, the Portland Public School district in Maine built 156 outdoor classrooms to accommodate about 5,000 kids on a rotating basis. And they were outside about - I think they said about half the time over the whole winter.

FOX: Then there are forest preschools and kindergartens designed specifically to be set up in forests or woodlands, with students outside for much of the day, even when it's freezing or pouring rain.

The number of forest schools has more than doubled since 2017. Jonel Kiesau heads one of the newest forest school programs in La Farge, Wis.

JONEL KIESAU: There were children saying, like, when are we going inside? And we were able to say, well, we're not. We're going to play outside all day. And now they don't even ask anymore. They just love to be outside.

FOX: Here in La Farge, the Kickapoo Valley Forest School has kept students outside every day so far, even though southwestern Wisconsin has already had snow and a lot of days below freezing. The school sent parents instructions about layering and gear to make sure kids stay warm and dry.

KIESAU: So far, we haven't spent a day inside. But there will be days, when it's maybe 20 below, when it's really not that safe to spend great amounts of time outside. And so we do have sheltered indoor spaces for that time.

FOX: Forest schools still have to meet state educational requirements, so teachers like Jason Rood bring out blankets and rugs to sit on with kids to practice their letters. Today he's doing it with student Jet Oium.

JET OIUM: Rrrr (ph).

JASON ROOD: Rrrr - rrrr (ph). What letter?

JET: R.

ROOD: R.

FOX: Ximena Puig, another teacher at the Kickapoo Valley Forest School, says she's seen kids' respect for their environment grow by leaps and bounds only a few months into outdoor learning.

XIMENA PUIG: Children who maybe picked every mushroom we saw at the beginning are now saying Ms. Ximena, don't step backwards. There's a tiny mushroom behind you. Please don't step on it. And that is just so beautiful, and we feel like the potential that this experience has to change the way that they interact with their environment for the rest of their lives is just, like, enormous.

FOX: Those pushing for more outdoor education are especially passionate about the ways it's different from classes indoors. Sharon Danks says it's all about perspective.

DANKS: If you're a forest school and you have a forest when you start, that's fabulous. If you're in a city and you have five acres of asphalt and chain-link fence, sometimes it's at first looking for the small plants that come up between the cracks.

FOX: COVID encouraged many schools to teach outside, but when teachers talk about what they like about being outdoors, it's often about reconnecting with nature. That's led some educators to push harder for outdoor learning experiences, even when they're no longer driven by concerns over pandemic safety.

For NPR News, I'm Madeline Fox in La Farge, Wis.

(SOUNDBITE OF PRAY FOR SOUND'S "YOUNG") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.