For about the past week, stories about conducting school classes outdoors have been capturing my imagination. I loved school anyway, but there were no better classes than conducting science experiments out of doors or spending art classes drawing in nature. And isn’t poetry more poetical when it is recited under a tree in English clash?

This story in the New York Times piqued my interest, especially since the children in the picture are all in their outdoor clothing. I couldn’t see this happening in most of Canada in the winter until I remembered my children’s adventures with “cooperative skis” at Churchill School.

Armed only with my enthusiasm and a few facts and articles, I decided to conduct a small survey with my patients. It’s totally unscientific and probably not worth much from a planning perspective, but it was a great behavioural activation exercise. Everyone felt better after a few minutes of silliness thinking about learning outdoors and, since my job is more about mood than classroom planning, this was a worthwhile exercise.

“What do you think of having classes outdoors in the fall?” I asked.

There was one extremely common response to my survey question: “Why?”

Nevertheless, I persisted. “Outdoor classes would provide extra space for social distancing.”

My patients are very much in favour of social distancing and are frightened of COVID-19, for the most part, and once I had explained the idea of outdoor classes being another way to get safe classroom spaces, they had some good ideas.

“I like the science experiments – sand volcanoes, reflecting ovens, that kind of thing.”

“A drama class could have a great backdrop for Prospero’s island!!”

“It would be inspirational and so relaxing.”

“Gym classes would be perfect outside.”

When I began the conversation about school with my patients – youth between 16 and 18 – I expected them to think of interesting ways to learn and I also thought that they would mention subjects and topics that are usually part of their curriculum. I also learned how worried they were about the academic impact the pandemic is having. They are worried about whether they will graduate on time and they worry that they will never do well enough to get to college or university, a dream for many of them and their families.

To many adults, and especially their parents, it must seem as though youth don’t think much about their education. This is not at all the case. Despite their studied disdain in the company of friends, most youth are aware that education is key to better jobs and a better life.

UNESCO estimates that 80% of children worldwide have been affected by school closures during the pandemic. There is a great push to get children back to school, citing how necessary this is for our collective economic recovery. However, the impact of school closures will have an even greater impact on children and youth – and they know it! This article in The Lancet summarizes that the greatest impact will be on young people from poorer backgrounds. The article cites the impact of summer holidays on poor children’s academic achievement. For poor children, summer holidays result in a loss of academic achievement according to the studies cited in the article. Worst of all, the loss of school often means going hungry. The breakfast and lunch programs in schools in Canada and the United States and other wealthy countries are providing nutrition for many children.

Let’s get children back to school safely. Let’s think about outdoor classes and Prospero’s island and poetry recited in schoolyards. Let’s put on our cooperative mindset and get this done.

(Cooperative skis – photo credit)

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