Taking the Classroom Outdoors! Is it as Equitable as it Sounds?


Environmental educators, along with park and recreation professionals, have been presented with an opportunity. The outdoor industry has a chance to partner with school systems to get kids out of the classroom, where COVID-19 can spread, and into Mother Nature’s classroom, the outdoors. Health professionals agree that gathering outdoors poses a lower risk of transmitting COVID-19 than gathering indoors. This is great news for outdoor professionals. COVID-19 is demonstrating why parks and greenspaces are critical for human health.

The North American Association for Environmental Education (NAAEE) realized this opportunity and developed its “eeGuidance for Reopening Schools.” NAAEE does an excellent job providing school systems with a comprehensive list of ways schools can repurpose school grounds and/or partner with outdoor professionals. Taking in-person or virtual field trips to greenspaces, working in a school garden, and using communal gathering spots as classrooms (e.g., nature centers, gazebos, etc.), are just a few examples that NAAEE provides to school systems.

However, the most important question remains unanswered. That is, will all American school systems have the same opportunity to partner with outdoor professionals and leverage the facilities of nearby greenspaces? The answer is, no. The Trust for Public Land’s (TPL’s) study provides strong evidence to support the claim that school partnerships with the outdoor industry will likely be more successful for whites and those who live in more affluent neighborhoods.

Laurel Wamsley, from NPR, discusses these striking statistics from TPL’s study. She notes that “parks serving primarily nonwhite populations are, on average, half the size of parks that serve majority-white populations…parks serving mostly low-income households are, on average, four times smaller…than parks that serve high-income households”. We at NRF recognize these disparities as another example of systemic racism and income inequality in America.

NRF is committed to helping change the narrative when it comes to conversations surrounding race and access to parks. We are proud to have partnered with TPL, a people-centered organization, on projects in Philadelphia, Newark, Chicago, and Atlanta. One of NRF’s grantmaking strategic priorities focuses on connecting youth with the myriad of benefits time in nature affords. NRF is dedicated to supporting grantee organizations focused on linking youth, particularly those from under-resourced communities, with meaningful outdoor experiences; Center for Conservation Leadership, Environmental Learning for Kids, Harlem Grown, Muddy Sneakers, Para La Naturaleza and Rippleffect are just a few examples.

We know that our support does not resolve the fact that park access is influenced by systemic racism and income inequality. New policies are needed to guarantee that all youth in the U.S., regardless of where they live, have equal access to parks and greenspaces. The COVID-19 pandemic has brought this unequal access to the benefits of time outdoors into sharp relief. The time is now for this to change.