Capturing pandemic experiences in outdoor learning and applying lessons learned to support equitable access
There is strong evidence for the health and academic benefits of outdoor learning (OL) for children and youth, including positive impacts on mental health, cognitive development, connection to nature, levels of physical activity and academic performance. Yet, because of complex systemic and environmental barriers, the application of OL has been inconsistently integrated into mainstream pedagogical curriculum. Lack of access is most notable for minority and low-income populations. There is a need to better understand how to implement OL for all students. With the increased health risks related to the COVID‑19 pandemic, many schools have taken their classes outside and are implementing innovative practices in delivering content within outdoor settings. These innovations represent a unique opportunity to examine what practices are being applied and whether they are effective to explore new ways for schools to integrate OL at scale.
The purpose of this study is to capture the experiences of educators and students who are learning outdoors in response to pandemic restrictions and to apply the findings to identify new opportunities to implement successful practices more broadly. This study applies the bioecological model to a mixed-method developmental evaluation that involves an interdisciplinary collaboration integrating methodological approaches from the field of education, psychology, biology and geography. This research takes advantage of several significant opportunities as it will:
– leverage the experiences and insights from a community of teachers who are championing innovations in OL
– capture new knowledge developed through the implementation of novel practices that may have broad applicability to diminish current inequities in OL
– compile emergent information about educational practices within the pandemic context
– generate community engagement with key stakeholders through the dissemination of current knowledge focused on identified needs and co-design of strategic applications
– examine the role of environmental factors in shaping OL practice
– integrate interdisciplinary methods to enhance recommendations and
– lay the groundwork for promising practices in OL going forward.
The first stage will involve a mixed method exploration that engages teachers, students and families within elementary schools at the Catholic District School Board of Eastern Ontario (CDSBEO) who are involved in OL activities. This component will draw on survey and interview findings to examine lessons learned and experiences of OL. It will combine these findings with biological and geographical data (measurement of levels of local greenness, proximity to major roads, access to local parks) to examine how these environmental features are related to success in OL. In the second stage, findings from stage one, that identify key lessons learned and current challenges, will be used to guide the focus of an environmental scan. Through the scan, existing research and practices will be explored that respond to the findings from the first stage. In the third stage, findings from the first two stages will be shared with administrators, teachers, students and their families and they will be engaged in the co-design of new products and communication strategies to support the uptake of identified practices.
The findings will be useful for educators, school administrations and policymakers who could support the integration of OL practice. They will also be relevant to the biodiversity conservation community, researchers who are involved in examining OL, organizations working to support uptake of OL, and families to support their engagement in OL. It will be beneficial to have reviewers from psychology, education and biology to assess this proposal.