Back-to-School(yard)! How the OASIS Schoolyards offer a solution to the global dilemma for re-opening schools.

OASIS Schoolyards

As the end of summer is approaching, governments around the world are seeking for ways to safely re-open their schools and welcome their pupils in class, however, the complexity of the safety measures for mitigating the virus transmission makes this decision a tricky riddle to solve. 

The sudden school closure, that was announced by many countries last spring, might have been an instant reflex towards the unknown risk of the covid-19 outbreak, however, such actions have a significant impact on children that goes beyond their physical health and affects profoundly their mental wellbeing, social skills, safety and many more aspects of their development and quality of life. It is worth noting that the safety measures for containing the virus, in some cases implied even more restrictions for the younger citizens compared to adults, as for example in Spain the children were not allowed outdoors for six weeks.

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According to United Nations, 60% of all children worldwide live in countries that were in either partial or full lockdowns during Spring 2020.

What did the sudden school closures mean for children worldwide? 

School Closures April2020
Fig. 1A: School Closures (April 2020) source: UNESCO

 

School Closures July2020
Fig. 1B: School Closures (July 2020) source: UNESCO

In April 2020, 194 countries have imposed countrywide closures affecting more than 1.5 billion children and youth (see fig.1A,1B) while today over 100 countries are still applying school closures locally or country-wide (July 2020). With more than 500 million students with no access to remote learning, the ambitious targets of the Sustainable Development Goal 04 for ensuring inclusive and equitable quality education, are currently being substantially challenged.  It is unequivocal, that those targets need to be revisited in light of covid-19 and its significant social and economic implications.

During the lockdown, children faced distinctive social, emotional, and academic losses. Remote learning meant long hours staring at a screen with zero physical social interaction or activity. While it is widely known that excessive screen-time has negative effects to everyone it is even more damaging to young children whose emerging language and literacy skills depend a lot on social interaction in the classroom. Moreover, the list of effects on the little ones is longer, as the physical play is an extremely valuable experience at this age. Play strengthens not only gross and fine motor skills but also interpersonal relationships, problem-solving, visual-spatial thinking, confidence building, and stamina.

Essentially, students of all ages benefit from in-person learning experiences in ways that cannot be fully replicated through distance learning. Therefore, it is an urgent matter to think outside-of-the-box and develop schemes that could provide at least a few hours of school-time even in the midst of a pandemic.

Can outdoor classes be an option?

Currently, the concept of outdoor learning appears high on the discussion agenda for solving the global “Open or Closed Schools” dilemma. Moving lessons outside is one of the World Health Organization’s recommended measures as using the outdoor space could optimize physical distancing and minimize the risk of virus transmission since fresh air is circulating. It is noteworthy that the concept of setting up school classrooms in open-air spaces has been the approach for tackling previous pandemics, such as the tuberculosis outbreak back in the beginning of the 20th century.

Some countries have already integrated activities in open-air public spaces to their school schedule (Denmark) while others have been piloting outdoor classes in the schoolyards (Italy) or elsewhere local communities have taken the initiative to coordinate classes in the nature (France). However, when assessing those examples there are multiple opportunities but also challenges and difficulties in implementation, and one realizes that a single solution doesn’t fit all. Therefore, for developing a more adaptable framework that can be implemented by the majority of schools and communities, the following questions arise:

- What if a school is located in the heart of a densely built neighborhood with no accessible park nearby?

- Is the schoolyard the appropriate place to host outdoor learning activities? Is just bringing the desks and the chairs outdoors enough to provide quality education and inspire children to learn?

Korshoejskolen public school in Randers, Denmark
Fig. 2: Teacher Rebekka Hjorth has a music lesson with her class outdoors at the Korshoejskolen public school in Randers, Denmark, on April 15 | source: CNN

Denmark was one of the countries to announce complete lockdown before any deaths from covid-19 occurred and this decision led to flattening the infection rate surprisingly fast, almost within a month.  Eventually, the country began easing the lockdown measures already in April and following the advice of Denmark’s infectious diseases agency, the government announced that the youngest children would be the first ones to re-enter the society. Therefore, Denmark was the first European country to allow the re-opening of primary schools, kindergartens and nurseries in mid-April by following the key principles below:

  • classes split in two to keep two meters between each child
  • more lessons taught outside
  • implement a rigorous hand-sanitizing regime
  • Playgrounds marked into sections to keep children in the same small groups
  • Parents drop-off students at staggered times, sometimes using different school entrances, and are not allowed inside school buildings
Ivrea, pilot school re-opening
Fig. 3: Ivrea, near Turin in Italy, the reopening of this school is a test.
Photo: © 2020 Nicolò Campo | source: telerama.fr

In the town of Ivrea, two kindergartens, “Don Milani” and “Sant’ Antonio”, were allowed to welcome their pupils back already in March, as they have developed an outdoors-only curriculum and children never went inside apart for using the bathroom. Similar to the Danish example, for the trial opening in Ivrea, they had also established a number of rigorous guidelines:

  • Pupils are separated into groups of five with their own teacher
  • Hands and faces are frequently washed
  • Play equipment gets disinfected after each use
  • Drop-off and pick-up times are staggered to minimize contact between parents who are not allowed beyond the gates
  • School hours are reduced to 8am – 1pm
Drome Region, forest classroom
Fig.4: Parent-led Forest School in France,
Photo: Jeff Pachoud/AFP  | source: the local.com

In France, the government allowed schools to re-open from mid-May, however, local administrations in different regions were reluctant to open schools as they couldn’t afford to apply all safety measures according to the announced health protocol. Nevertheless, in the Drôme region in Southeast France, parents decided to take action and provide school-time to their children in a safe and yet creative manner. A group of parents set up a temporary community-led forest classroom where they are responsible for the class equipment, sanitation and the activities.

What is outdoor learning?

Due to school buildings’ limitations for providing the adequate space for pupils to safely return into classrooms, the discussion around outdoor learning has been growing lately and one might wonder: “Is outdoor learning a new concept?”

By no means! On the contrary, it has always been the genuine way for exploring, learning and developing as a child. However, in general today, the school area beyond the school building falls outside the sphere of education although the outdoor space provides an enormously valuable resource for learning and teaching. A wide range of educational activities could be ideally held outside, such as ones involving learning about the weather, trees, water and so on.

The concept of outdoor learning prioritizes children’s contact with nature and experiential learning. It is a hands-on learning method that fosters empathy, exploration, creativity and social interaction, while enhancing physical health and well-being. Moreover, research has proven that taking lessons in the nature encourages important skills such as problem-solving, negotiating risk and language development [6]. At the same time, bringing urban children closer to nature boosts their environmental literacy, makes them aware of current environmental issues and inspires them to pursue a more sustainable way of living.  

Today, a current popular model for outdoor learning is the so-called Forest school, which is defined as “an inspirational process that offers ALL learners regular opportunities to achieve and develop confidence and self-esteem, through hands on learning experiences in a local woodland or natural environment with trees”. The idea was initially developed in Scandinavia and in the last few decades an increasing number of countries globally are adopting and integrating this approach to their educational system. The scheme that is commonly followed suggests a visit to a Forest School on a regular basis (weekly or monthly).

How does the OASIS approach accommodate quality outdoor learning in the schoolyard?

The OASIS approach aims to transform the asphalt-layered schoolyard into a nature-based polyvalent space that inspires its users to use it for multiple activities, such as outdoor learning or free play instead of simply being a sports field or a common playground. 

The Maryse Hilz school compound (fig. 5) includes an elementary school and a nursery located in the 20th arrondissement in Paris. The two schools currently have separate courtyards with a surface area 1,789 m² for the elementary school (fig.6) and 985 m² for the nursery and with only 18% total permeable surfaces for each courtyard. The school compound is one of the 10 pilot schools participating in the UIA – OASIS Schoolyards project and during this year both its courtyards have been re-designed through a participatory process with children and the entire school community.

Acknowledging the aforementioned benefits of learning in the nature for pupils of all ages and inspired by the concept of the “Forest School” in other European countries, outdoor classes have been one of the priority uses for the OASIS Schoolyards.

The plans that emerged from the co-design phase (fig.7,8) suggest a complete transformation of the schoolyard by significantly increasing the percentage of permeable surfaces and vegetation as well as creating a rich natural environment with various features that stimulate learning through experience.

Maryse Hilz map
Fig. 5: Maryse Hilz School Compound © CAUE de Paris
Maryse Hilz Existing Schoolyard
Fig. 6: Maryse Hilz Schoolyard (élémentaire) - Before transformation
© CAUE de Paris
Maryse Hilz Sketch01
Fig. 7: Maryse Hilsz, Sketch of the OASIS Schoolyard produced during the
co-creation workshops with pupils. © CAUE de Paris
Maryse Hilz FloorplanSketch
Fig. 8 caption: Maryse Hilsz, OASIS Schoolyard Floorplan produced during the
co-creation workshops with pupils. © CAUE de Paris

Looking closely at the newly designed schoolyard of Maryse Hilz, one will identify multiple areas that can accommodate outdoor teaching spaces that are sheltered and safe, such as wooden huts or an amphitheater and many more features that inspire for experiential and less static learning activities, like a number of small hills and ridges (fig.7,8).

In a nutshell, the OASIS approach has developed a range of different feature types for designing schoolyards as learning landscapes, including the following:

  1. Awnings
  2. Infrastructure for gardening classes (planting beds)
  3. Wooden seating deck – bleacher
  4. Wooden shelters (huts) – to host small groups for play or class
  5. Outdoor chalkboard
  6. Landscaping (small hills, small rivers)
  7. Vegetation (trees for shading, seasonal vegetation)
  8. Storytelling circle
  9. Natural loose parts
  10. Sensory buffer garden

The OASIS Schoolyards provide a versatile open-air classroom with a balance between natural environment and design structures in order to support an innovative school curriculum that combines academic learning with hands-on experience. Considering the number of pupils in each school as well as the weather constrains, classes in the schoolyard cannot be a standalone solution for safe schooling, however, a rotation-based approach that combines indoors, outdoors and remote classes can be a feasible solution.

Additionally, apart from the benefits of outdoor learning for children’s wellbeing, it is important to highlight that providing the opportunity to go to school reduces social inequalities that tend to exacerbate in periods of crisis. Online learning has been a handy solution for many schools however, not every household has limitless access to internet or multiple devices to use.

The OASIS Schoolyards can be a key element of a holistic framework that delivers a well-rounded and learning experience for the pupils while limiting potential future disruptions in children’s daily school life.

Outdoor learning is an education method with multiple benefits that have the potential to extend well beyond this pandemic. A positive notion for integrating more nature into the school premises and curriculum comes from governments in different countries- Denmark, UK, France, Italy just to mention a few - have been already considering including nature-based learning in the school curriculum permanently.

Ultimately, this pandemic might as well offer the extraordinary opportunity to re-think the current education system and re-structure it in a more environmental-friendly, child-oriented and –most definitely- a more joyous manner!

Stay tuned to learn how 10 asphalt-covered schoolyards are being transformed into natural learning spaces!

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