Outdoor classrooms reinvigorate kids during the pandemic

The outdoor program, offered in all 50 states, aligns with Common Core State Standards in science, social studies, language arts and math.


Video above: New York City schools to close again after virus uptick

When the pandemic forced his school to go to online learning, fifth-grader Bergen Manzella spent six hours a day staring at his computer screen.

"My eyes were drooping a lot and red. I was really tired staring at a screen, not being able to move around that much," Bergen said.

His mother, a math tutor, didn't like what it was doing to him. The truth is, even before remote learning, she was seeing her son come home from school tired and wrung out.

"That more sterile environment in an indoor classroom can be fatiguing," Brynn Manzella told CNN.

So she decided to homeschool him. Around that time, Manzella heard about another teacher holding an outdoor class once a week in her Loveland, Colorado, neighborhood with other elementary school kids.

The class came at the perfect time, Manzella said, because her son needed more outdoor time to explore and socialize with other kids in a safe way during the pandemic.

"I think it creates an opportunity for kids to be really resourceful and to think outside of the box."

Fresh air, nature and no screens

Project Learning Tree is an environmental education program that gets children from prekindergarten through 12th grade out into nature to explore and learn about their environment, with a focus on trees. It's part of the non-profit Sustainable Forestry Initiative.

"It's super fun. We do a whole bunch of activities," 10-year-old Bergen told CNN. "I just love all the colors of nature being outside."

The program, offered in all 50 states, aligns with Common Core State Standards in science, social studies, language arts and math. Just in time for fall, they learn why leaves turn yellow.

"The stuff inside them that makes them green, goes inside these tubes in the leaf so the tree can store it for the next year," Bergen said. "Then the leaves turn yellow and fall off the tree."

Students also learn about pollinators and how bees help produce the food we eat. They learn how seeds travel through the wind and grow in the soil where they land. They create nature journals.

The kids develop their creative writing skills that way — crafting stories from their observations, sitting under a tree for 10 or 15 minutes, said Michele Mandeville, a facilitator for Project Learning Tree in Colorado.

"If we give kids the opportunity to get outside to learn in nature, to engage with nature and others within an outdoor space, they're really going to learn to preserve nature and just kind of fall in love with it," Mandeville told CNN.

Video: Some NH schools set up tents to hold classes outdoors

The kids choose a tree to "adopt" and they learn about that species — from the bark to the type of leaf — and watch how it changes through the seasons. They pretend to be trees and gather the nutrients they need for them to survive, collecting different colored squares for each element.

"There was green for nutrients, yellow for sunlight, blue for water and red for fire," Bergen said.

They learn to "read" a cross section of a tree to see how old it is through the number of rings and what happened in each year from beetle kill to forest fires, which Colorado is dealing with now.

Mandeville also teaches them to spot the species of birds in their trees — from downy woodpeckers to western bluebirds.

And classes are held all winter in many places, unless it drops below freezing. Birds are easier to spot when the leaves are off the trees and kids learn to build shelters and check for animal tracks.

Project Learning Tree shares these fun winter activities parents can do outside with their preschoolers.

Using five senses to observe

Children learn to focus and observe using their five senses just as scientists need to hone their power of observation. Mandeville has the kids map out sounds they hear, called "sound mapping."

"They close their eyes and kind of put on little 'deer ears' by cupping their ears," Mandeville said.

They write down everything from bird tweets to traffic sounds to rustling leaves and rushing water and indicate the direction they're coming from.

"We're not engaged with sound because we're so stimulated by our vision," Mandeville said.

She encourages students to lift up a log in the river and discover what may be hiding underneath. She explains how mushrooms and moss help decompose wood in the river.

"They can collect data and you can even spend time building bar graphs, comparing different elements in nature they found," Manzella said. "You can't do that in a classroom with four walls. They're able to learn in a different way."

The power of nature to soothe, and spark creativity

Bergen's mom says after that he takes the class, "he comes home enlivened." Studies have found numerous health benefits of spending time outdoors in nature and children in particular benefit greatly.

Bergen explains it this way, "I feel like, you can breath and you can just be closer to the ground, to this earth."

Mandeville, who has a Master of Education degree, took a year off from teaching in school to do outdoor education, which ended up coinciding with the pandemic.

"There really has been a rise with students getting really nervous and anxious when they're in the classroom and just kind of the rush in the quick change of subjects that they have to go through and not giving them a lot of time to process and get outside and really engage," she said.

Teachers need to get outside, too.

"I know that they are burnt out and overwhelmed with trying to engage kids through a screen," she said.

Mandeville is a facilitator for Project Learning Tree, giving other teachers, and informal educators workshops — now online — about how to teach this outdoor education curriculum.

"Many students who are quiet in the classroom and don't want to be called on tend to really excel outdoors," said Mandeville, who herself was a shy kid.

"The quiet ones ... their eyes open up. They want to explore. They feel like they have a little more room to just go poke around and maybe lift a log, look and see what's under there."

Kids tend to have very short attention spans when they're looking at screens all day, Mandeville said.

"It really is about going outside and just opening up our sense of awe and wonder and looking and seeing what we have not seen before," she said.

No formal class needed to get outdoors

Whether you are an educator, a parent or a volunteer interested in the outdoors, you can find free nature activities and games for kids to download or pull up on an I-Pad on Project Learning Tree's website. Or you can get training online to hold an informal class in your own community.

Parents can get their kids outside and away from their screens whether they find a class or not, Mandeville said.

"It's just something very simple such as going into your backyard, finding a place to sit — we call that a 'sit spot' — and observing all that's around them," picking out bird song, traffic noise, leaf blowers and the sound that wind makes through the leaves, she said.

That encourages self-awareness, to learn to sit quietly and just be.

"I find that nature has always been a place for me to heal and find hope in the world," said Mandeville.

Bergen's mother agrees.

"Oftentimes we're outside and we're just not noticing all the life that's happening around us even in the middle of a city," she said. "And as soon as we start noticing, I really believe that we can't stop noticing."