As the nation’s school districts plan strategies to keep students safe when schools reopen for the 2020-21 school year, repurposing outdoor areas as learning spaces is getting growing support from parents and others.

Expanding the physical space used for education beyond its brick-and-mortar facilities may not only help schools meet physical distancing requirements aimed to protect students’ physical health but also promote better mental health.

Indeed, with kids at home over the past months more parents have observed how reduced contact with nature is wreaking havoc on their children’s emotional state. In a recent New York Times article, some parents related how increased time indoors due to playground closures and overcrowded parks during the pandemic has brought on short tempers and notable anxiety. Calmer, more regulated, and happier were words one mom used to describe her kids after they could play at a friend’s backyard instead of being cooped up inside their condo.

Since journalist Richard Louv coined the term Nature-Deficit Disorder in 2005 with his book, “Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children from Nature-Deficit Disorder,” increasing evidence suggests that this nonmedical condition contributes to a diminished use of the senses, attention difficulties, conditions of obesity, and higher rates of emotional and physical illnesses.

Unsurprisingly, many parents are reluctant to see their children return to another semester of remote learning where they’re tied to the computer for so many hours each week.

Paige Ela, whose children are six and 10, recently testified before the Washington, D.C., school board to propose outdoor classrooms when the district reopens. In a WUSA-TV news interview, she spoke to the mental exhaustion her children felt doing serial Zoom calls and how she instead thinks children now need the healing that comes with exposure to nature.

“Specifically, after events of trauma — and I think all of us have experienced that with COVID and Black Lives Matter events happening simultaneously — there's a tremendous amount of research that suggests that getting out, breathing fresh air, seeing greenery is just really important to the healing process," Ela told reporter Delia Goncalves.

Parents are well-accompanied in their push for alternatives to online classes. In light of “evidence of the negative impacts on children due to spring 2020 school closures,” the American Association of Pediatrics states that it, “strongly advocates that all policy considerations begin with the goal of having students physically present in school for the coming school year.”

Utilizing outdoor spaces when possible is one of the high-priority strategies the association recommends for physical distancing in pre-K though secondary schools.

“You can really have equity of access by using public parks, by using outdoor space, by closing streets around our schools to make sure that all schools have access to be able to use that,” says Scott Goldstein of EmpowerEd, who has started a petition advocating for outdoor education in Washington, D.C. "The more space you have, the more creative you can be about things like inclement weather."

Moving chunks of classes outdoors in time for next school year is daunting task for districts and educators, yet the long-term benefits for students may make it worth it. Fortunately, organizations with experience in this area are stepping forward to offer support. Childhood by Nature just published a list of resources to help schools start the process of repurposing the outdoors as a learning space.

For example, a recent webinar hosted by the International School Grounds Alliance and the Children & Nature Network on designing and using school grounds to support mental health featured creative and low-cost ways schools around the world have brought the outdoors into education.

U.S.-based Green Schoolyards America has excellent resources available online for using outdoor spaces on PreK-12 school grounds. The site offers planning case studies, site-design and cost-estimating tools so school and district administrators can weigh the various options for bringing students outside for academic classes, school lunch and other programs.

On July 4, Green Schoolyards America along with the San Mateo County Office of Education and other organizations hosted an online forum with initial ideas on how outdoor learning could be an asset for districts. They are currently inviting educators to join a series of working groups that will create frameworks, strategies, and guidance to share with school districts across the country.

To sum it up, according to Green Schoolyards America, “Repurposing outdoor spaces is a cost-effective way to reduce the burden on indoor classrooms while providing fresh air, hands-on learning opportunities, and the health benefits associated with increased access to nature.”