On a recent sunny December morning, a group of kindergartners from Mangrove School of Sarasota gathered on log benches in a Florida forest to eat lunch. They sat under a wooden hut with a thatched roof, a replica of early-1800s Native American housing that’s part of a local museum exhibit built by Miccosukee tribe members. They’d spent their morning having imaginary snowball fights and pretending to trick-or-treat among the spooky leafless trees.
Their school, a private pre-K-8 school, normally held about 70 percent of instruction outside before the pandemic hit. But recently, the school shifted to being almost totally outdoors. “Parents say their kids come home happy and tired,” says Erin Melia, Mangrove’s director and 8th- and 9th- grade teacher.
Based on recommendations from the Centers for Disease Control and the American Academy of Pediatrics to use outdoor space as much as possible to help curb the spread of COVID-19, public and private schools across the United States are experimenting with outdoor education. Christy Merrick, director of the nonprofit Natural Start Alliance, which advocates for nature-based early childhood education, estimates that the number of outdoor school programs went from around 250 in 2017 to 600 in 2020.