Albemarle County School Aces Outdoor Education Test

Apr 1, 2021

First grade teachers Marguerite Brunner reads to students at the Free Union Country School.
Credit RadioIQ

For many children, COVID-19 has meant educational setbacks as they struggled to absorb lessons online.  But for others the pandemic has underscored the value of learning outside.  Virginia Public Radio's Sandy Hausman reports on a school near Charlottesville where students spent 90% of their time in fields, forests and tents.

Once upon a time, children did not sit in classrooms listening to lectures.  Instead, they were outside with elders, studying nature and how to survive.  Today, some schools in Europe and the United States are returning to forests and fields, lakes, creeks and beaches to learn.

"They are surrounded by so many interesting things that they want to explore and learn more about so there's an intrinsic level of motivation that exists" says Eric Anderson,  head of the Free Union Country School -- a private primary school in rural Albemarle County with about seventy students.

“I think there’s also a lot of research that shows  how being outside is good for kids’ cognitive and social well-being, how it helps to steady them, helps with attention issues.”

Free Union was already committed to outdoor education, but it doubled down when COVID hit -- convening a panel of medical experts to advise teachers and administrators, building four large tents on the seven-acre campus, buying lap desks and portable seats for students and limiting the size of each class.

“The Commonwealth was still in stage one of the pandemic where you could only have gatherings of no more than 10 people,  so we limited every class to nine students and one teacher,” Anderson explains.

That way, even if extreme weather forced students inside, social distancing was possible, but Anderson says kids were actually able to learn outside 90-100% of each day. 

This mild March afternoon, Marguerite Brunner’s first grade is studying language arts on the banks of a stream -- reading a poem about that very thing.

"Grumbling, stumbling, bumbling  all the day, fluttering, suttering muttering away.  This is how the brook talks, bubbling as it goes," she reads.

"Good poem!" shouts one student.  Brunner is not surprised.

“It’s natural for them.  They’re very energized when they’re outside,” she says.

Second and third grade teacher Blair Amberly adds that one outdoor topic can lead to many different disciplines.  A lesson on food insecurity, for example, led students to plant apple trees, herbs and vegetables that could feed people without too much effort.

“From that there was a lot of reading and writing and journaling," he says.  "Then there's a certain amount of math  to measure out the circle around the tree, and to order soil,  and there was a lot of science, the whole array of insects and critters that you don’t want getting in.”

And everyone learned to dress for the weather.  Students told RadioIQ:

“I wore a sweatshirt and sweatpants, snow pants and then my winter jacket."

“My mom got me bibs – like hunter bibs, so I’m packed and loaded with warmth.”

"I've got this hat that has this  massive popmpoms on top of it."

"My galoshes are insulated, so they have nice warm stuff on the inside."

"Basically the entire winter I just wore my sweatshirt and sometimes my gloves.  I don't get cold very easily."

In the early stages of the pandemic, some faculty members wondered if holding in-person classes, even outside, was safe, but as the weeks passed Amberly says their confidence grew.

“As more information about the virus was communicated, it really did feel pretty safe, and I felt really comfortable coming every day, and the mental health aspect of being here in person with students versus being on a screen with 8 and 9-year-olds is so huge for both the students and for the teachers.”

As it turned out, one teacher got COVID, but no other faculty members or students were diagnosed, suggesting the disease did not spread at school, and even when the pandemic is past, many faculty members say they’ll keep teaching outside.

Preschool teacher Nicole Maclay adds that parents were also pleased .

"I asked all my families before school started, ‘If we go into remote learning, would you like to Zoom?’ and they were like, ‘Absolutely not!’  

On this day, there’s one other person singing the praises of outdoor education.  Heidi Reed is the founder of One Forest, a woodland activities space in Nelson County.  She hopes this model of learning is contagious and thinks the pandemic may be a turning point.

“We’ve slowly started to make our way indoors as human beings, and now we think we need to be indoors," she explains.  "Teally we came from the outdoors, and we can just start to make our way back out there.”

All of this might sound reasonable for a small, private elementary school, but what about a large public university?  Beyond scientific study, is there a place for outdoor education on campus?  In our next report we’ll visit James Madison University and a professor of journalism who’s winning rave reviews for conducting all of his classes outside.