A year ago, New Hampshire schools shut down for what many thought would just be three weeks. Now, schools across the state are reopening fully. NHPR's Sarah Gibson visited Deerfield Community School, where teachers and students have been spending a lot of the pandemic outside. And as they return, many are hoping that doesn’t change.
If you walk past Deerfield Community School and into the woods, you’ll come across a scene a bit like a fairy tale.
First graders are sitting on tree stumps in dappled sunlight working on math assignments. Beyond them lies thirty acres of woods and pond.
Marilyn Riordan, sporting a pink unicorn mask, says this is the best kind of classroom.
“I like nature, so I like being outside,” she says.
When it’s chilly, Marilyn and her fellow first graders tend to a fire in the fire pit.
Seven more outdoor classrooms at this public school are scattered through the woods. Community members built them last summer for the pandemic, with tens of thousands of dollars in donated labor and supplies.
Each classroom has a shelter, made from a heavy duty tarp, a fire pit, a white board, and backpack racks hewn from felled trees.
First grade teacher Cindy Hanson gives her students five to ten-minute breaks between lessons to explore their “range,” but most of the day, they’re focused on academics.
“When I call them back, they come right back ready to work. People were worried they’d be distracted by what’s around them, and that’s been our biggest surprise,” she says.
On warm days, classes do nearly all their lessons outside. In the winter, some still came out a few hours a day. Fourth grade teacher Sue Laskowsky says students are thriving, particularly those who struggle in traditional classrooms.
“All the things that maybe bring them down - whether it’s that they’re not up to a level academically - when they’re outside, those kids are the most helpful kids; they’re the hardest working kids; and all of a sudden everyone’s on equal footing,” she says.
This social benefit of outdoor classrooms is Deerfield’s big takeaway from the pandemic. Most students, it turns out, are just as focused and less anxious learning math among hemlock trees than they are indoors.
And during the pandemic, being so spread out has helped students like fourth grader Matthew Fowler feel safer.
“Each classroom is far away from others and plus, after you’re learning you can probably have some recess here!” he says, gesturing to the forts and piles of leaves beyond the fire pit.
And, according to budding scientist Hudson Ronayne, age 10, the woods are benefitting, too. Hudson says when he breathes out, he’s giving the trees his carbon dioxide.
“When the trees get the CO2, they take the carbon off the O2 they release the O2 and attach the carbon to their skin so they can become bigger!” he explains.
These students just started coming to school five days a week after being in a hybrid model, where they rotated in small groups between in-person and virtual school.
For Laskowksy’s fourth grade, this means there are now seventeen rather than nine kids in class every day. At first it was a shock, but then they went outside.
“Literally as soon as we walked into the outdoor classroom and spread out everybody, it was almost like they just heaved a sigh of relief. They were like: ‘This is better,’” she says.
And relief is a thing Laskowsky and her colleagues could use, after a year of stress and unknowns. She says like with many schools, there’s been tension in the community about how to reopen and when.
But she’s focused her attention on the kids.
“I feel very connected with them,” she says. “I feel like we’re doing a good job together handling everything. And I stop listening to the other stuff - turned off social media, all that.”
The school says it hopes to return to normal soon. But it plans to keep using the outdoor classrooms for years to come.