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The importance of outdoor Ed in the Post-COVID world and always

Laurie Foley, Principal - Blyth Academy Etobicoke

As someone who grew up in a rural community where Phys Ed classes routinely involved a hike in the woods, canoeing on the river, or simply a class on the grass or in the trees, I am lucky to have experienced the value of outdoor education from the perspective of both the learner and the educator.  Based on those experiences, I have become a strong advocate of the benefits of outdoor education and have striven to ensure that our school programs offer students a variety of outdoor education opportunities.  My students will tell you that I routinely say to them, “I believe that just like flowers and trees, students need sunshine and fresh air to grow,” but beyond the growth that is implied here, there are so many more benefits to outdoor education. 

I suppose, growing up with those outdoor educational experiences, I didn’t realize how unique they were in the grand scheme of things.  To me, they were simply ‘educational experiences’ –so much of what we did just happened to be…outside.  Looking back, I’m very thankful that I had those opportunities.  I know that they have helped to shape me into the person I am today.  I have benefited in so many ways but most notably in the continued importance that outdoor activity plays in my adult life, which provides balance, many forms of exercise and activity, and an appreciation and respect for nature.

A quick Google search on ‘the benefits of outdoor education’ will provide a variety of answers related to several different focus areas but common threads you’ll find are: it promotes community and culture, it supports mindfulness and well-being, and it facilitates relationships between students and the environment, often improving their experience as a student – after all, outdoor education is meant to be not only educational but fun!

Most parents I speak with lament the fact that their child spends so much time inside, often playing video games.  Parents see the value in stepping outside, getting fresh air, and participating in physical activity, though they tell me they often have to battle to engage their children in these activities with any regularity.

Over the pandemic, we have seen a pivot to outdoor education as we’ve never been seen before.  As we welcomed students back to in-person learning for the first time in September 2020, we found that outdoor education was not only beneficial in mitigating health risks related to COVID-19, but also absolutely essential to building a sense of community and connection in our school and classrooms.  When the year began, students spoke to one another very little in class and it was evident that the student experience would be compromised without that essential balance of academics and community in the school.  By employing outdoor education activities and using outdoor classrooms, we saw students begin to foster connections that supported both their academic and personal growth.  After an incredibly difficult period where students were isolated and scared, through outdoor education, they felt comfortable being social again – as teenagers were meant to be!

I hope that educators will learn from the lessons provided by the pandemic over the past few years and that those wonderful outdoor classrooms won’t go the way of the dodo.  They’ve proven their benefit in driving student engagement, creating community connections, and promoting health and well-being.  Students will still need all of those on the other side of this pandemic, perhaps even more so than they did before.  After several years of staying close to home and missing out on many types of experiences that they would have had otherwise, students will need to learn (and in some cases relearn) how to take risks and problem solve, not only the in classroom but in the world outside the four walls of our school building.  How better to do that than alongside a supportive teacher?

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