NASHVILLE, Tenn. (WTVF) — The pandemic pushed students and teachers at Linden Waldorf School outside into pavilion classrooms even in the winter weather — a model the school said will remain as they build permanent outdoor classrooms.
"This is a permanent change. We have decided to intentionally invest in our students' health and safety, not only their physical health, but their mental health as well," Said Tricia Drake, Linden Waldorf School head of school. "Being outside in nature is, aside from the leaves blowing and the leaf blowers, and some of the other noises that just happen outside, they really pale in comparison to what the students are actually getting out of their educational experience here."
The school built outdoor pavilion structures in summer 2020 so school could continue in-person in fall 2020, and the students have stayed primarily outdoors ever since wearing masks.
Seventh grader Zain Khalili said he prefers the outdoor classroom, even when it means bundling up in the winter.
"It's a lot better than doing virtual school because after I would get off every day of just being on the computer in class, I would not feel very good. But, that that we're outside in nature, I feel like it makes learning more enjoyable," Khalili said.
Second grader Eliza Green agrees.
"I like that it's outside, and you have a less chance of getting sick or getting COVID and you have more things to look at when you're bored," Green said. "It isn't really crammed out here like it can be in those indoor classrooms. Yesterday during Core Line, a bunny just hopped right through the middle of like, right behind me and a few of my friends."
Third grade teacher Rosana Portillo — who moved up with her students every year since first grade — said she wishes it did not take a pandemic to bring school outdoors.
"One of the things we talk about with parents is that a lot of our kids, you know, we try to provide these beautiful happy childhoods, which is amazing," Portillo said. "But sometimes there's not really that many challenges and having kind of a physical challenge is actually not a bad thing for kids of a certain age. A lot of the students have risen up to the challenge of doing chores and helping take care of our space. And that's actually been a beautiful thing to see. Whereas inside, the adults tend to do things a little bit more often. And now everybody really has to help."
Portillo said she has seen growth in students who need more movement.
"If you kind of just get up for a moment or walk around your little stump seat, it's really not as big of a deal as when we're all cramped inside. And then it doesn't really disrupt class and everyone's still engaged," she said. "And we do have to take moments to just observe something that's really amazing like if the hawk is nearby, we have to go look but we can come back to the to the pavilion and and everybody is still really engaged and focused on a lesson even if it is a grammar lesson or something like that."
She said she also has seen improvement in the students' attitudes.
"Really the camaraderie of the group and their sense of service has just really risen since we've been out here," she said.
In addition, for her students as third graders, she said she has seen the benefit of teaching science and culture lessons in the outdoor environment.
"There may be a few other things we have to consider like making sure we're staying warm, making sure parents are sending in proper layers and we're keeping track of all that kind of stuff like we really can't forget some of our hats and gloves and things," Portillo said. "But for the most part, what it adds — what it gives to us is just a far greater benefit. So it's definitely, in my experience, more of an asset than a limitation, at least for certain grades. It may not be the case for kids that are taking SATs maybe, but we're outside, and we're moving and it works really great."
"People still think we're a little crazy. They can't believe that we're still outside. I think most people can't believe that we are actually investing in more outdoor structures," Drake said. "We have two new buildings that we have completely renovated, we're adding all glass full view garage doors, 12 of them in our middle school so that even no matter how long COVID is, is here with us, we'll be ready to bring the outdoors in. And, not only for the safety of our students, but, as you've heard from my colleague here, it has been such a benefit for our students to be outside and as close to nature as possible throughout this whole experience. We wouldn't go back."
The new outdoor-indoor classrooms are set to be ready for students later in the 2022 spring semester.
"Being outside is not just like a limitation that we're having to work through that it really does provide a lot of benefits. And maybe we probably should have tried it earlier," Portillo said. "In fact, there are a lot of things that we had to correct and redirect for students that we just simply are simply not issues, non-issues out here."