Consider Fresh Air Classrooms

We keep looking back to the 1918 flu for insights into our present situation, but prior to that catastrophe, public health officials had been struggling with the deadly bacterial contagion tuberculosis for many decades. And it was two female doctors right here in Providence, co-founders of the Providence League for the Suppression of Tuberculosis, who decided to think outside the bricks, launching the nation’s first two “fresh air” schools, inspired by the “forest schools” existing then in Germany.

In The Case for the Outdoor Classroom, New York Times writer Gina Bellafante suggests we revisit the idea of fresh air classrooms for getting our kids back to school safely. (Some fascinating archival photos with that piece, including one of a class being held on a ferry.)

In the early years of the 20th century, tuberculosis ravaged American cities, taking a particular and often fatal toll on the poor and the young. In 1907, two Rhode Island doctors, Mary Packard and Ellen Stone, had an idea for mitigating transmission among children. Following education trends in Germany, they proposed the creation of an open-air schoolroom. Within a matter of months, the floor of an empty brick building in Providence was converted into a space with ceiling-height windows on every side, kept open at nearly all times.

From the archives of the Rhode Island Medical Journal:

The first fresh-air school in the country opened on Jan. 27, 1908. Although it was a severe winter in Providence, the classroom temperature was never more than 10 degrees higher than the outside air. Pupils faced the teacher, with their backs to the open wall, to allow light and the fresh air to wash over them.

. . . A fire in a cylinder stove arrested the chill. In addition to her teaching duties, Marie E. Powers heated soup and puddings for the students on a cooking range. In winter, the children studied at their desks inside “Eskimo sitting bags” with heated soapstones to warm their feet. In addition to their studies, the students did gentle exercises, including “wand drills,” and practiced proper breathing. In the spring, they tended a garden.

Bellafante suggests,

It is also possible that all kindergarten, first- and second-grade classes could be held outside, with the natural environment deployed as a resource for math and science education, as one public-school teacher proposed to me. Those grades account for nearly a quarter of all students in the system. Alternatively, schools could use as much accessible outdoor space as possible to reduce the number of students in a building at any given time, thus allowing for proper social distancing. Instead of rotating between live school and remote learning, children could rotate between indoor and outdoor work during the course of the day.

Forest kindergarten is a real thing spreading across Scandinavia, Great Britain, Germany, Austria, and now in the U.S. To get a rough idea of what this looks like, watch the 10-minute documentary, “The Danish School Where the Children Play with Knives.” These kids are outdoors in all weather.

(The undated image seen here from the Library of Congress is titled “Open air school, Providence.”)


The first fresh air school in the country opened at 24 Meeting Street in Providence, in 1908. The 1769 Old Brick School House currently houses the Providence Preservation Society.


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