The bird was definitely going to die. The eighth-graders in Cornelius Minor’s class were walking back to their Brooklyn school when someone noticed a young bird struggling for life on the sidewalk. The students — about a dozen boys — broke line formation and huddled around. Some started to cry. Some strategized a rescue. Minor looked at the bird and at his watch. Only a few minutes remained for the creature and for class. Minor tried gently explaining that the bird wouldn’t make it, but the kids would not be moved. They urged Minor to call animal control and their science teacher for help and to notify the office that they would be late for the next period.
“For me, that was the perfect assessment,” Minor said. “They were using everything that I taught them about empathy. They were using everything that they had learned in science. They were using everything that they had learned about how the city works and about how a city agency works to save the life of this bird.”
That was 2009. Minor is now a teacher coach, but during his 10 years teaching in New York City public schools he took students outside almost every day. As evidence of airborne transmission of coronavirus has grown, outdoor learning has garnered attention as a safer way to conduct school. In July, the New York Times highlighted how open-air classes were held even amid New England winters to help fight tuberculosis in the early 1900s. A piece in the Atlantic suggested that such plans might be better for kids than the isolation and inequities of virtual learning but were unlikely because of bureaucracy. Absent any state or district-wide initiatives, some teachers are taking up the outdoor learning mantle on their own.
According to long-time practitioners like Minor, these practices hold promise beyond limiting the spread COVID-19. The curiosity and connection sparked by outdoor learning could be a much-needed antidote to the anxiety and stress of 2020.
In a year full of challenges, figuring out how to implement outdoor learning may feel like a tall task for teachers. It’s too hot in Arizona. Too muggy in Mississippi. Too snowy in Maine. And in cities everywhere, “too dangerous.” Kass Minor has heard many of those objections in recent months. It’s a similar response that comes with “anything that’s outside people’s experience,” she said, but like her husband, Minor took her students outside regularly when she taught in New York City public schools. She noted that New York City erected a pop-up hospital in Central Park in just a week this spring and said that with a shift in resources and mindset, similar innovations are possible in education.
This summer, Minor brought together experienced outdoor educators to create a virtual course that helps teachers envision and implement outdoor learning wherever they are. The goal, Minor said, is to support teachers in creating “doable” alternatives that “help everyone experience the things that we’re deeply missing about teaching and learning right now, which are those joyful experiences and kids being curious about the world.”
That requires rethinking what outdoor learning is and who it’s for. Outdoor learning can happen across subjects, and it doesn’t require access to lush gardens or forests. When Cornelius Minor’s students encountered the dying bird, they were on an urban walk to experience how long it took to burn off one gram of sugar. The exercise was part of a short-term health class that Minor was asked to teach, but most of his outdoor teaching was part of language arts.
“Writing very much has its root in a place,” Minor said, “So when kids show up and say, ‘I don’t have anything to write,’ it means that you haven’t been outside and really opened your eyes.” He started each year by taking students outside to turn their senses on as writers. The brownstone they passed everyday, the housing project down the block, the corner where they bought popcorn after school — all of those places contain stories, Minor said. “And so really helping kids to mine important places for important stories is an essential component.”
In his decade of teaching, Minor said he only suspended one student and often saw attendance rates above 95 percent. He attributed those successes to the engagement that comes with getting beyond the classroom walls. “I always feel like a kid is going to come to school if they know that their writing teacher is going to be showing them something weird outside so that they can write about it.” Minor acknowledged that he could not officially prove the connection, but research lends support to his observations. A 2019 research review published in Frontiers in Psychology found that “nature-based instruction outperforms traditional instruction” for academic outcomes such as standardized test scores and graduation rates. Those benefits may derive from improvements to “attention, levels of stress, self-discipline, interest and enjoyment in learning, and physical activity and fitness,” the authors wrote.
For Cinnamon Kills First, a Northern Cheyenne artist and educator, academic research on the benefits of outdoor learning simply confirms what her ancestors have long known. In a session for the virtual course that Kass Minor developed, Kills First described how indigenous traditions hold the earth as a family member to be treated with reciprocity. She encouraged teachers to learn from that wisdom. When European settlers colonized the United States, they “intentionally disconnected people from their natural learning environments” through forced removals and assimilationist practices, such as boarding schools that forbade Native culture, Kills First said in an interview with MindShift.
“I believe a majority of the social or global issues we face have to do with how humans have mistreated the land. All those decisions are coming back to harm us and our health,” she said. By helping children relate differently to the land and each other, Kills First said teachers can play a role in reversing the damage.
Minor, too, described his work with outdoor learning as an effort to undo the harm of colonization. “People, especially people of color, especially poor people, have been taught that they have no rights to the land. That’s what colonialism has done to us. It’s taught us that we have no place. It’s taught us that we have no history,” he said. During the first week of school every year, Minor said his students questioned why they were going outside, saying, “That’s for white people.” By May, however, they resisted any lessons that were indoors.
The importance of a bird
Back in 2009, after calling the science teacher outside and continuing to brainstorm life-saving methods, Minor’s students slowly realized that they could not rescue the dying bird. As they returned to the school building, the boys packed together in a unit, comforting one another. Although the physical proximity would not be allowed amid the current pandemic, Minor said the spirit of that walk contrasted with how middle school is typically “all about denying your feelings” and how others might label his students as “tough kids.” When he thinks of his best moments in teaching, he remembers those eighth-graders, huddled around a bird, with tears in their eyes, trying to save its life.
“When you start to learn how important even a bird is, then you’re important,” he said. “So when I think about outdoor education, it’s not just about staying safe in COVID. It’s about raising citizens who care for each other. It’s the cornerstone of democracy.”