Encouraging outdoor instruction in Albany schools

We submitted the following to an Albany school district survey about re-opening schools in September.

The Vegetable Project, a volunteer tax-exempt nonprofit organization that has led garden programming at Myers Middle School since 2009 and at Albany High School since 2014, encourages some inclusion of outdoor instruction based on voluminous academic research published long before coronavirus was part of our shared vocabulary and based on growing consensus that the risk of transmission of the virus causing Covid-19 is lower outdoors than it is indoors. Outdoor teaching and learning is not a panacea in these difficult times. But 10 or 20 or 30 days in the fall and as many in the spring, maybe only where schoolyard space is conducive, would at least improve prospects for more in-person instruction than might otherwise occur and reduce time spent in the unappealing environments of online instruction and indoor instruction.

We would encourage Albany schools leaders to explore the thinking on outdoor instruction of the Inside Outside Advisory Group of educators in northern New England. .

We would describe a recent New York Times column by Ginia Bellafante about holding classes outdoors during tuberculosis epidemics in the early 20th century as urgent reading.

A Times editorial said, quite correctly, earlier this month that school “officials need to think outside the building.

We would be heartened if some one or two people charged with responsibility for thinking through Albany schools’ next move would peek at some of what we have written on the subject.

We would implore thinkers about instruction in September 2020 and well beyond to become familiar with the work of Cornell environmental psychologist Nancy Wells; Louise Chawla, professor emerita in environmental design at the University of Colorado; and especially Frances Kuo, who leads the Landscape and Human Health Laboratory at the University of Illinois.

And we certainly hope that consideration of what constitutes effective instruction in Albany schools is at least somewhat informed by familiarity with Richard Louv’s “Last Child in the Woods: Saving our Children from Nature Deficit Disorder.”

The Vegetable Project has been working – perhaps ineffectually – to develop an outdoor classroom at Myers Middle School. Unless we have completely misread, presentations about this effort to Superintendent Adams, district facilities leaders, school board members, the past five Myers principals and many Myers parents have been received enthusiastically, albeit without offers to help move the idea forward. There are many reasons to move some instruction outdoors. We listed two dozen of them back in 2018. Perhaps the best of all is the contribution that contact with nature makes to human health – physical, mental and social and emotional. We will never succeed in algebra and all those other school subjects until we support the whole person known as a student.

–Bill Stoneman

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