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A growing number of parents in Seattle are pushing for some outdoor learning in the fall

Ashley Gross
Outdoor learning has become increasingly popular at the preschool level. Here are students at the Tiny Trees Preschool in Seattle's Jefferson Park. Now parents are pushing for some kind of outdoor education for K-12 students in the fall.

Marina Gray says her 11-year-old son has fallen into a pandemic pattern.

Like many kids his age, he plays the video game Fortnite with his friends. Back in the pre-coronavirus days, Gray had strict screen-time limits, but now she’s relaxed those restrictions because the game allows him to stay social while also staying safe from the virus.

And yet, with the Seattle school district set to start the school year with online learning, she’s worried about the impact of too much screen time. The school district has proposed a fall schedule for middle and high school that would include three hours a day of live online classes for much of the week, plus a couple more hours daily of independent and small group work.

Gray is one of a growing number of parents who say it would be great for the school day to include some outdoor time with peers and teachers. It’s an idea that some California school districts are exploring, especially because experts say the risk of transmitting the virus is lower outside than inside. Three Seattle school board directors have proposed a resolution that would incorporate some outdoor learning in the fall reopening plan. Their proposal will be discussed as part of a Wednesday afternoon work session.

“I think getting him off of a screen and outside in nature and in the fresh air is a positive benefit, not only for his physical well-being but his mental well-being,” she said.

More than 800 people, including Gray, have signed a petition calling for the school district to include some outdoor education. 

Board Director Liza Rankin said the idea emerged out of a realization that having school be 100 percent remote would make it a lot harder for students to connect with each other and their teachers.

“It takes away so much of what is important to people about school and being part of a school community,” she said. “And that’s when we started talking about the outdoor part.”

To Gray, this moment presents a unique opportunity to reimagine school and explore new models, including outdoor learning, which she envisions as a way to help students through a stressful time. Outdoor preschool is an approach that’s already gained popularity in recent years in the Pacific Northwest.

“I don’t think we’re going to be out there with kids with desks with wet paper in the Northwest,” she said. “I think ultimately we have an opportunity to have basically some play-based outdoor time and potentially some environmental science, climate-oriented education and potentially some social-emotional learning.”

And with the number of outdoor equipment companies in the Seattle area, she said it’s a perfect location where the community could come together to make this work.

“We live in a town of a lot of smart, creative and innovative thinkers,” Gray said. “If we can’t activate now, when are we ever going to do it?”

In July 2017, Ashley Gross became KNKX's youth and education reporter after years of covering the business and labor beat. She joined the station in May 2012 and previously worked five years at WBEZ in Chicago, where she reported on business and the economy. Her work telling the human side of the mortgage crisis garnered awards from the Illinois Associated Press and the Chicago Headline Club. She's also reported for the Alaska Public Radio Network in Anchorage and for Bloomberg News in San Francisco.