Opinion: Why we're teaching school outside all day during COVID-19

Rob Himburg

We are on the cusp of the most fraught and uncertain school year in


There are no easy answers right now. Not for educators. Not for parents. And certainly not for children. Frustration, fear and uncertainty abound. Very little seems to be working and the path forward is hard to envision.

Sounds like the perfect opportunity for change.

More importantly, this is a necessary time for change. The traditional model does not exist right now; change is incumbent.

As the adults — educators, parents, policymakers, etc — we have an essential responsibility to our children to model the thinking and capabilities required to find our way through the educational challenges of this pandemic.

Upland School

But how?

I think it all starts with community. We are in this together. Real community is really hard work. We can show our children that despite our competing ideas and perceived differences, there is a common ground that we are all rooted in, and it is the most important thing in our lives: our children. We need creative ideas, divergent thinking and to play devil’s advocate with each other to find the solutions that will work.

We can model resilience and cooperation by doing the hard work, together. This is not about which adults are right or wrong, this is about our children and their future.

Our children are growing into a world facing massive challenges that will require them to be creative, innovative, collaborative solution-finders. They will be working in eclectic groups of people to do this, requiring a high degree of empathy. Cultivating a strong sense of agency will help children develop the leadership skills they need to make good decisions for themselves and their communities. We must endeavor to create learning environments that support and guide children toward the development of these capabilities.

Upland Hills School

What does that kind of learning environment look like, and is it even possible? I believe there are many high-quality examples out there. And by no means do I wish to portray myself or Upland Hills School as having all the answers. But we do have some ideas, and our school has a 48-year history to offer as evidence of those ideas in context.

Perhaps most relevant in this moment is our school philosophy that regards the natural world as a primary teacher. We trust and witness that free play in the natural world will reap benefits in the psycho-social development of children, and that first-hand encounters with their peers in the trees and swamps and grassy hills always nurtures the sense of awe and wonder. 

In turn, this approach fosters engagement and effort in the full academic program provided in each teaching group. Together it serves as the developmental foundations for creative thinking, empathy, agency and love of learning so critical to their academic development.

In the past, our students have spent roughly half their school day outdoors learning and playing. We see this year as an opportunity to take it further and create learning spaces throughout campus that will allow our teachers and students to safely be outdoors all day. In this year of COVID-19, the ability to be outdoors and safely distance is one of the single most important risk mitigation strategies we can employ.

I offer our example simply as an invitation to educators, parents and anyone interested in coming together in service to our children. It won’t be easy, but doing the right thing rarely is. We are all standing on the shoulders of those who have put in the work before us. We are looking in the eyes of our children who need us and will inherit the world we are creating in this moment. What greater motivation can there be?

Rob Himburg is the director of Upland Hills School in Oxford.