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Covid-19: Schools should embrace outdoor learning

By Victor Koyi | Nov 4th 2020 | 3 min read
By Victor Koyi | November 4th 2020

Covid-19 clearly presents a great challenge to the education sector. It has forced us to explore new ways of educating our children. As the government plans to reopen schools, there is need to rethink learning as we adhere to measures aimed at containing the spread of the virus.

Crowded classrooms are a common scene in most schools in Africa - which makes social distancing impossible. For our education systems to get to where they are today, it has taken decades. Most schools we see today have taken years to construct and some still lack essential facilities.

Therefore, it is foolhardy to believe that more schools and classrooms can be constructed overnight to ensure social distancing. Instead, for a start, let us capitalise on the already-existing resources.

To ensure social distancing in schools, which is the biggest challenge compared to providing masks or soap and water, we need to take the discussion beyond measuring the distance from one desk to another and start exploring new ways of learning. Can proper and effective learning take place outdoors, say in the school garden? Yes. Certainly.

During our school days, we had practical agriculture lessons in the field where students learnt how to farm. Students were allocated a small plot of land that they tended to which was eventually graded. We looked forward to these lessons because they were fun, practical and enabled us to interact with the real natural world.

Outdoor spaces allow for social distancing more naturally. Besides minimising the risk of transmission, learning outdoors can also build resilience among learners and increase physical activity. It also raises enthusiasm and motivation for learning. Learning comes alive, things become real, not just conceptual. Such hands-on experience lays the foundation for experiential and practical learning that extends beyond the classroom.

There are various benefits to learning outside and this is something schools should embrace as we work on the long-term financially demanding infrastructural improvements. Luckily, for most schools especially in rural areas, space is not a problem.

Time is ripe for education systems to integrate more learning about the land with formal education. After all, this is how our ancestors learnt. Back then children learnt societal rules and survival skills in real and natural environments.

In addition to learning outdoors, school timetables can have classes on a rotational basis – while others study in class, others study outdoors with smaller class sizes and alternating attendance patterns.

The UNESCO International Commission on the Futures of Education’s new report ‘Education in a post-Covid world: Nine ideas for public action’ presents ideas for actions today that will advance education tomorrow. One of these ideas is to protect social spaces provided by schools.

The school as a physical space is indispensable. Traditional classroom organisation must give way to a variety of ways of ‘doing school’ but the school - as a separate space-time of collective living, specific and different from other spaces of learning - must be preserved.

Now, while some may argue that going back to the days of learning under a tree is retrogressive, we must be innovative given the limited resources.

Outdoor learning, though, comes with its own challenges. The weather can pose a challenge – it could be too hot, rainy etc. Children can also get easily distracted. Even more crucial is that most teachers lack familiarity with outdoor learning and do not have the necessary hands-on experience. This calls for training, creativity and innovation.

In addition to providing masks to learners, introducing non-contact greetings, and ensuring schools have adequate water and soap for sanitation and hygiene purposes, we should explore innovative and creative ways of learning outdoors to ensure social distancing. It will be difficult to get started, and experience barriers related to physical constraints but with time, we will get used to it.

As we focus on how to improve the physical infrastructure, let us not forget that while schools were closed, some children went through a lot of traumatic experiences – being abused, lack of food and forced to engage in child labour.

Thus, reopening plans should also include child protection and well-being such as providing psychosocial and emotional support and meeting children’s health and nutrition needs.

-Mr Koyi is the Africa Regional Director for ChildFund International

Covid 19 Time Series


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