Published: Nov. 3, 2020

Students  learning about outdoor ecosystems

Heatherwood Elementary School children study the ecosystem and offer recommendations for nature discovery at the City of Boulder's Wood Brothers property. Photo by Cathy Hill

Growing Up Boulder (GUB), a CU Boulder-based initiative, is gaining national recognition for finding innovative ways to bring children back to school safely during COVID-19 times: through outdoor learning. Using creative outreach methods, GUB is working directly with Latinx parents and with classes of elementary school students within Boulder Valley School District (BVSD) to co-create outdoor learning experiences that will keep them virus free and be responsive to their learning and other needs.

“While I would never wish a pandemic upon any of us, this challenging situation has a silver lining. The general public is finally paying attention to the benefits of outdoor learning,” said Growing Up Boulder Director Mara Mintzer. “Researchers and outdoor educators have long known that outdoor learning benefits critical thinking and problem-solving, increases physical activity, and leads to more creative and cooperative play; we now have the added benefit that it reduces transmission of the highly contagious coronavirus.”

Growing Up Boulder is currently raising funds to support the development of BVSD’s outdoor learning efforts. For more information, contact Growing Up Boulder co-founder and Director Mara Mintzer.

Growing Up Boulder, considered one of the nation’s most successful child-friendly city initiatives and a CU Boulder program based out of the Community Engagement Design and Research (CEDaR) Center, is currently partnering with BVSD to develop an inclusive framework for public schools to respond to COVID-19 related challenges while conducting in-person lessons.

“In alignment with Colorado's phase of being safer ‘in the great outdoors,’ we can use school grounds and local parks as outdoor classrooms to provide ​fresh air, hands-on learning opportunities, and mental and physical health benefits to students,” said Ghita Caroll, BVSD’s Sustainability Coordinator.

Last week, Mintzer and Carroll presented to the National COVID-19 Outdoor Learning Initiative, which supports schools and districts around the country to develop outdoor spaces as cost-effective tools for keeping schools open during a pandemic. Growing Up Boulder is one of 15 partner organizations that play a pivotal role in building a national movement that convenes frameworks, strategies, and guidance to share with school districts around the country. 

Their focus is on equity in educational programming, which aligns with the National COVID-19 Outdoor Learning Initiative, which states: “Formal and nonformal learning in the outdoors can place students at the center of learning, reducing the distinction between school, home, and outdoor spaces. This can provide multiple benefits for ALL students that reduce health risks, minimize inequities, provide flexible settings, and enrich learning opportunities.”

With a commitment to always include 50% or more of underserved community members, Growing Up Boulder is conducting Spanish-language focus groups in early October with ELPASO’s Voz “Líderes Comunitarias,” a group of Latinx parent leaders from the local community, in order to ensure that the needs of Latinx families are incorporated into BVSD’s outdoor learning plans.

“I want my kids to learn outdoors! In my home country of El Salvador, the teachers took the kids outdoors to learn and the children paid better attention,” asserted one leader as part of the discussion. “I’m concerned about the rain,” said Elizabeth Pineda, “Well, maybe a solution could be for the children to learn under tents?” suggested Yuriana Chavira. 

Overall, the Latinx leaders involved in the focus groups were enthusiastic about more outdoor learning opportunities within the school district. 

“BVSD’s long-term vision in sustainable education is to have ‘all students literate in sustainability upon graduation,’” said Carroll. “BVSD has created outdoor learning spaces over time. Growing Up Boulder has been an incredible partner over the years and enables the district to further understand the needs of our community and partners and support outdoor learning for all BVSD students during the pandemic and beyond.”

Mintzer is scheduled to deliver a keynote address for the 2020 Early Childhood Health Outdoors (ECHO) Annual Summit on Oct. 23 to engage a national audience on the importance of enabling access for all children and families to the outdoors as a restorative, inspirational, and safe space for community experiences. 

Outdoor learning and access to nature has a deep-rooted history of positive benefits for children and youth of all ages. Beyond reduction of stress and enhanced concentration, outdoor learning is now a popular Covid-compatible engagement format that enables safe social conduct and physical distancing in compliance with pandemic public health standards, according to guidance from the American Academy of Pediatrics.

Many European countries, like Germany and Italy, are committed to holding outdoor lessons with smaller classes with billions of Euros in funding to create safe and inclusive learning spaces. The United States is also increasingly invested in exploring outdoor learning environments as a long term solution for mitigating Covid-19 related risks for students, teachers, and school staff, according to the North American Association for Environmental Education.

Next steps for Growing Up Boulder’s and BVSD’s local initiative include gathering additional input from interested principals and teachers to address needs they might have for outdoor learning, while marshalling all the resources available in the community to make the biggest, collective impact.

“We can help schools think through how to use their outdoor space,” said Mintzer. “We can also connect a school up with professional development from our local environmental educators about how to manage a class of kids outside and taking it one step further - creating curriculum using the outdoor environment as a feature.”