Case Studies


Document: ee Guidance for Reopening Schools


In June, 2020, the North American Association for Environmental Education (NAAEE) published a brief document – ee Guidance for Reopening Schools – that suggests considerations schools and school districts might take in reopening schools amid the pandemic. The recommendations illustrate how outdoor and environmental education ideologies that are put into action can offer solutions to social distancing needs, make use of existing or modified outdoor learning spaces, and facilitate new teaching methods and practices for teachers and parents.

The five recommended strategies are: 

  • Extending and Expanding Learning Spaces into the Community
  • Using the School Grounds for Learning
  • Supporting Teaching and Learning
  • Creating Healthier Learning Environments
  • Virtual Teaching and Learning
  • Supporting At-Home Learning

In Illinois’ case, the Environmental Education Association of Illinois worked to demonstrate to end-users how these strategies might be deployed with Illinois-specific case studies, resources, and useful links. The Illinois document showcases specific actions schools have taken in the past months, including: 

  • Clearing brush and debris to create outdoor classroom space
  • Speeding up the implementation of an on-going outdoor classroom certification plan

And ways in which Illinois nature centers and other nature-based education facilities are enacting these strategies, including:  

  • Offering outdoor education training for teachers 
  • Creating nature-based and natural history video tours (for teachers and parents) 
  • Hosting half-day in-person learning opportunities for children grades 1-6
  • Distributing nature activity packets for families to use in their own neighborhoods (taking advantage of school-based meal distribution to get materials disseminated)

The Illinois guidance materials also lists relevant local resources in addition to what’s offered by the Environmental Education Association of Illinois, including the Illinois Green Alliance, and the Green Ribbon School program.  


Relevant factors in implementation:

The NAAEE document was created with input from various state leaders in the field of environmental education. This community-based and participatory method of creating guidelines fostered the creation of broad-based and thorough document, from which Illinois could ground their own recommendations. 


Environmental Education Association of IllinoisExecutive Director, Abbie Enlund

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New England

Documents: Position Statements on School Reopening & Cold Weather Outdoor Learning  


A relatively new organization to New England (founded in 2018), Inside-Outside aims to “develop a network of educators and educational institutions throughout New England to support, connect and partner; to confidently, safely and joyfully venture outdoors with children and to use nature for teaching and learning.” The roster of Advisory members includes leaders from various nature centers, outdoor learning facilities, and academic institutions (including David Sobel, Professor Emeritus, Antioch University New England). The organization has chapters in Maine, Vermont, Massachusetts, and New Hampshire. 

The Inside-Outside Advisory Group has published two position statements since the onset of the pandemic: “Outdoor Learning & Schools Reopening,” and “Outdoor Learning in Cold Weather: Keep Moving Through Winter & COVID-19.” Both documents cite as the bases of the position statements, research related to COVID-19 airborne transmission, and the positive impacts of nature-based education on academic outcomes and mental health. The documents offer, in addition to a rationale for the given statement, sample agendas and actionable strategies. 

The Reopening document, for example, includes:

  • A sample schedule for conducting in-person school outdoors for half of the day
  • Ideas on how classrooms might use outdoor community assets for learning
  • Sample activity ideas for partnering with a local farm for hands-on, outdoor learning
  • Suggestions for incorporating extended outdoor blocks into traditional classroom schedules  

And the Winter document includes: 

  • Suggestions on appropriate outdoor gear
  • Ideas for nourishment and outdoor shelters
  • Recommended outdoor equipment 
  • A list of winter-related topics or investigations classrooms might undertake


Relevant factors in implementation:

The Inside-Outside Advisory Group had previously published non-pandemic related position statements and has a direct connection to timely and relevant research via group members from the academic community. 


Inside-Outside Advisory Group 

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New Mexico

Grant Program: Outdoor Equity Fund


Tied to outdoor recreation’s economic impact and the New Mexico Economic Development Department, the New Mexico legislature passed Bill 462 in April 2019 to create an Office of Outdoor Recreation aimed at bolstering tourism, job creation, and cultural and historical connections to public lands. The law, signed by Governor Michelle Lujan Grisham, included appropriations for an Outdoor Equity Fund to support disadvantaged youth getting outside.  

The call for proposals was released in January of 2020 and quickly pivoted to include COVID-19 safety protocols, including social distancing and group-size guidelines, and awarded applicants who found innovative ways to connect youth with nature during the pandemic. Twenty-five finalists (out of 84 applicants) were selected to receive between $1,500 and $15,000 in funding. Over $260,000 total was allocated to support programs and projects such as: 

  • Water-based recreation as educational experience for Zuni youth 
  • Two-week summer camp focused on outdoor recreation and co-created public art mural at City of Rocks State Park 
  • Six-month program of habitat exploration, observation, and restoration project focused on stewardship and youth employment 
  • Bicycle safety and maintenance for young men of color with an emphasis on connecting with decision-makers through storytelling 
  • Multi-generational conservation and restoration team challenge in NM Parks
  • Weekend backpacking retreat for immigrant and BIPOC youth with a focus on place, identity, history, and belonging
  • Land-based learning for Native students (K-12) fostering a connection between land, leadership, community, health, and Native identity
  • Nonprofit-K-8 partnership to create local outdoor learning environment on school grounds, to be scaled up to district level 


Relevant factors in implementation:

As a whole, this grant program and the associated bill creating the Office of Outdoor Recreation was developed and implemented prior to the onset of the pandemic and any “stay at home” or social distancing orders. The program was, however, able to continue largely as planned, and shift priorities to support innovative ways of connecting youth with nature during the pandemic.   


New Mexico Outdoor Recreation Division (division of NM Economic Development Department); NM Governor, Michelle Lujan Grisham; Bill 462 lead author, Representative Angelica Rubio (D-35)  

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New York

Resolution: Green Schools Outdoor Learning Resolution 


The New York City Community Education Council District 3 (CEC3), which represents the city’s Upper East Side and parts of Harlem, presented the New York City Department of Education with a Green Schools Outdoor Learning Resolution in the summer of 2020. The resolution notes several factors contributing to the desire among parents and other stakeholders (including teachers, administrator, and community-based or national organizations) for the city to support outdoor classroom expansion or creation, including: 

  • Inequities caused by distance learning
  • A historical precedent for outdoor classrooms during previous pandemics
  • Science confirming COVID transmission rates are lower outdoors 
  • Growing support for outdoor learning among stakeholders 
  • Plans for in-person education having eliminated recess, PE, and lunch
  • Links to time in nature and social-emotional health 
  • The flexibility and capacity increases outdoor classrooms offer 

The resolution concludes with several recommendations, including: 

  • 30% of students being outdoors at any given time
  • Equitable implementation among schools
  • A feasibility study to consider rooftop, playground, school yard, nearby park and street closure access
  • Funding legislated for all New York City schools to support outdoor classrooms 
  • Planning for inclement weather 

In August, 2020, New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio announced that schools can launch outdoor learning and requested that they submit outdoor learning plans identifying feasible spaces for such use. Other city agencies were requested to prioritize implementation of schools’ requests. 


Relevant factors in implementation:

District 3 is noted as having already been supportive of various green school efforts. A dedicated team of parents and teachers, spurred on by a Green Schoolyards America workshop, created a Task Force with the NYC National Wildlife Federation and GrowNYC School Gardens to, among other things, draft the resolution. 


New York City Community Education Council District 3 

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Licencing Nature Preschools


Washington’s Department of Children, Youth & Families began a four-year pilot program to license outdoor, nature-based, early learning and childcare programs beginning in 2017. The new legislation and pilot program was designed to analyze the gaps in childcare regulations designed with indoor environments in mind and what might be needed in an all-outdoor setting. The timing, which earmarked July, 2020 for final data analysis and reporting, coincided with the pandemic and some believe, set an appropriate stage for a surge in demand for outdoor educational and child care settings. 

Washington became the first state in the US to licence outdoor preschools, a licensure that allows new and previously part-time facilities to become full-day programs, an “important factor for working families,” the Seattle Times notes. Licensure also opens up opportunities for preschools to access state-subsidized funding which directly impacts equitable access to nature programming. 

Leaders in the nature preschool field in Washington hope their work can serve as an example for other states. Their recommendations include: 

  • Organizing a network of supportive stakeholders, particularly among nature preschools, and at the legislative level – WA formed the Washington Nature Preschool Association to coalesce voices and represent the field when working with legislators  
  • Considering the messaging presented to lawmakers – WA focused on equity and accessibility and the demand for nature-based programming
  • Understanding the legislative and advocacy landscape – WA worked with a lobbyist to help them know who to speak with and what to expect 


Relevant factors in implementation:

While licencing of nature preschools in Washington is not a direct response to the pandemic, leaders in the field believe that having laid the groundwork over the previous four years allowed for a quick and timely response to the increased demand for outdoor experiences among families seeking safe and purposeful childcare.


Washington State Department of Children, Youth & Families; Washington Nature Preschool Association 

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Document/Website: Taking Education Outdoors Toolkit 


The Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction, in partnership with Green Schoolyards of America, created a comprehensive online toolkit for “Taking Education Outdoors.” Much of the document resources and case studies were crowd-sourced through member-based organizations like the Wisconsin Association for Environmental Education, Field Edventures, Green & Healthy Schools Wisconsin, and the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point’s Center for Environmental Education.  

The document offers recommendations, things to consider, and case studies from schools and community partners in the following categories: 

  • Learning landscape – Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction’s “Education Forward” plan for operating schools during the pandemic lists various and flexible ways instruction might take place (in-person, physically distanced, virtual, or a combination thereof), and the Outdoor Toolkit lays out how each of these modes can take advantage of outdoor learning 
  • Operations – considers policies like permission slips for outdoor experiences, communication plans for parents, and how technology can be advantageously used
  • Health & Safety – includes COVID transmission research related to outdoor classroom use, outdoor safety resources, and links on nature-mental health benefits
  • Instructional Programming – features links to the Wisconsin Educational Standard for Environmental Literacy & Sustainability, resources for professional development for educators, teaching resources and notes on special education and nature centers as partners in education 
  • Out-of-School Programming – offers links and other resources for non-academic experiences, and community partnerships 

The document/website is noted as being a living document and invites teachers and other stakeholders to submit case studies, resources, and other useful materials for encouraging schools and school districts to use outdoor spaces as a meaningful component of safely returning to school.  


Relevant factors in implementation:

The Wisconsin Department of Instruction has a staffed position dedicated to Environmental Education and thus, the capacity to compile and curate existing resources and solicit stories from educators, schools, and community partners into a meaningful and well-rounded resource. This connection to the Department of Public Instruction also facilitates dissemination and two-way communication regarding the document. 


Department of Public Instruction; various statewide community partners and contributors 

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Several national efforts either mentioned above or worth mentioning here. Green Schoolyards America and the North American Association for Environmental Education have both worked to convene diverse stakeholders from across the country to provide input and vision on guiding documents: