Reopening schools remains controversial as parents, educators and health experts continue to debate how in-person classes can operate safely.

Here’s something that is not controversial: Classes held outdoors, with room for children to be apart and in plenty of sunshine, would make the task of in-person learning easier.

And not just during a pandemic. Research is clear that outdoor learning can increase concentration and motivation for children. These spaces can make learning fun, and as we move ahead to helping children catch up after a year of virtual learning, outdoor classrooms are one of the best ways to making up for lost time.

That’s why we are pleased about a memorial scheduled to be heard in the New Mexico Senate on Friday. The House isn’t hearing memorials in 2021, so if the Education Committee approves it, the memorial would go to the full Senate for approval. It doesn’t need the governor’s signature.

As memorials go, it’s fairly standard — set up a task force to encourage the use of outdoor classrooms in New Mexico and have Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham declare an Outdoor Learning Day in 2021. There’s a career component to the memorial, too. It asks the task force to create career paths for young people, using existing efforts on outdoor recreation, education and youth career development.

We expect both the committee and the full Senate to approve the memorial so the task force can get to work. It would include representatives from a number of groups, including the Wild Friends Program and Environmental Education of New Mexico, as well as from a number of state agencies, including the Public Education Department, the Department of Game and Fish and the New Mexico Tourism Department.

The idea of safely learning outdoors at school builds on years of work in New Mexico to get more children outdoors. For nearby states — Arizona and Colorado — outdoor classrooms have been key to in-person learning during the pandemic.

Outdoor learning spaces are estimated to cost anywhere from $2,000 to $10,000 per classroom. But don’t make it overly expensive.

But the payoffs could be big. Whether an outdoor classroom is a shelter, garden or simply an area to sit, the open space means students can move and explore. A permanent space also allows teachers to plan lessons and the ways they will use open spaces.

For kids, in addition to learning in a way that helps them absorb and retain information, there are possibilities for movement and exercise. Getting kids to move helps them burn calories, which in turn can help turn the tide in the ever-present battle against childhood obesity.

The memorial is the brainchild of the Wild Friends Program, a civics education program at the University of New Mexico School of Law. Students in grades 4-12 help draft legislation on a wildlife conservation issue and work to pass it in the Legislature. Their Senate Memorial 1 — introduced by Sen. Siah Correa Hemphill, D-Silver City — deserves support.

Children need more time outdoors. Considering how many hours they spend at school, it’s an obvious place to help children get moving and keep learning.

(2) comments

Jerry Appel

Some of my fondest school memories are of the walks we took as a class to learn what was in the neighborhood. Storefront owners came out to talk to us about their operations and provided samples. In high school, art classes sent out students to decorate the large, glass storefronts with artwork for Columbus Day, Halloween, Christmas, Chanukah, Thanksgiving, Flag Day, and Presiddent's Day. This is also a great way to do science without great risk and a lot more realistic. Taking children out and having them record weather data and wildlife observations would be a great experience and exercise. Less time in rooms and more time outdoors makes for healthier children and better community schools.

Mimi Roberts

This is brilliant and solves multiple problems at once. Even before COVID-19 New Mexico had high rates of sick days and truancy which it would undoubtedly bring down. They do it year-round in places like Denmark and Finland. Until we can upgrade the HVAC systems in our schools this would be a way to send students back more safely but I'll bet it would turn into a permanent change.

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