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EDUCATION

Can outdoor teaching enable Italy to safely reopen schools?

As Italy debates how to reopen schools after its strict Covid-19 lockdown, teaching outside is one of the solutions being suggested to help kids return safely to class. Jessica Phelan heard from teachers and parents already involved in outdoor education to find out what’s really involved and how it might work.

Can outdoor teaching enable Italy to safely reopen schools?
Children and parents in Rome hold a flashmob calling for schools to reopen, June 8th 2020. Photo: Andreas Solaro/AFP

In the last week of May, while most pupils in Italy were still doing classes via computer, children at two kindergartens in Piedmont were examining the magnolias and counting snails on the school lawn.

The kindergartens, Don Milani and Sant'Antonio in the town of Ivrea, are two of the only nurseries, schools or universities in Italy to have allowed kids back through the gates since March. Most still haven’t; by the time pupils return in mid-September, it will be for the first time in more than six months.

The reason they were able to invite children back is because they kept them outside, one of the strategies that’s being considered to help Italy reopen its schools while controlling the risk of another devastating coronavirus outbreak.


High school students in Rome wait to take their final exams on the school's basketball court. Photo: Tiziana Fabi/AFP

Balancing the need for social distancing with the determination to return pupils to real classrooms after three months of online lessons only will mean significantly rethinking schools’ physical space.

The Ministry of Education’s scientific committee has recommended that each school should “map and reorganize its own spaces … also making use of additional spaces through collaborations with local authorities”.

The obvious place to seek extra space is outside. Moving lessons outdoors is one of the World Health Organisation’s recommended measures for reopening schools, corresponding to research that suggests the large majority of infections occur indoors.

Epidemiologists say that’s because the viral particles released from an infected person’s mouth or nose more rapidly fall to the ground or get diffused outdoors, where there are fewer surfaces to catch them and more fresh air circulating.

While heading outside doesn’t eliminate the risk of transmitting the new coronavirus, it is one of the strategies that Denmark has successfully employed since becoming the first country in Europe to reopen primary schools, nurseries and kindergartens, in mid-April.

READ ALSO: How Denmark got its children back to school so soon after lockdown

Danish teachers were encouraged to move lessons as well as breaks outdoors as much as possible, alongside extra hygiene measures and limits on physical contact. So far Denmark’s school reopening “has proven to be very safe”, epidemiologist Christian Wejse of Aarhus University told The Local six weeks in.

In Piedmont, the Italian region with the second-highest number of coronavirus cases, teachers in Ivrea tried out many of the same measures adopted in Denmark. In their trial reopening, 3-6 year olds were separated into groups of five who had their own teacher, zones and bathrooms that weren’t shared with anyone outside their “bubble”.

Hands and faces were washed at frequent intervals, while play equipment was disinfected after each use. Drop-off and pick-up times were staggered to minimise contact between families and parents weren’t allowed beyond the gates, while the day was reduced to 8am-1pm.

Above all, except for using the bathroom, the children never went inside.

A summer of experiments

Originally planned to last four days, the programme was extended for another two weeks and expanded from 20 children to 30. The municipality hailed the trial’s “excellent results” and said it had received considerable demand for the service from local families.

“The kids were overjoyed, the parents relieved that they could leave the kids with someone they knew and trusted,” says Vittoria Burton of Alce Rosso, a local cooperative already experienced in outdoor education that coordinated the project on behalf of the town council and supplied its own specially trained educators.

Thanks to a grant from a private foundation, the non-profit was also able to provide a similar outdoor programme for a further 40 children on its own grounds in the Villa Girelli, a sweeping park built for the children of workers at Olivetti’s nearby manufacturing hub. This week it started a summer camp for under-3s, “so we'll have a full summer to experiment,” Burton tells The Local.


Villa Girelli was designed as a park for workers' children within the Olivetti complex in Ivrea. Photo: bass_nroll via Flickr, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

But while parents may be happy for children to spend a few weeks outside in summer, they might feel differently as autumn approaches and the school year begins in earnest.

Does outdoor education have a longer-term future in Italy, which doesn’t have the tradition of forest schools that Denmark does, which spends less on education per inhabitant, and where teaching methods are notoriously slow to change?

“In this post-Covid phase we’ve had a lot of people getting in touch, to understand what kind of training you can undertake to foster outdoor education,” says Filomena Massaro, director of Italy’s National Network of Outdoor Schools, which currently counts around 40 public primary and lower secondary schools among its members.

Massaro, who is herself a head teacher at an istituto comprensivo (kindergarten to high school) in Bologna, points out that it’s not as simple as taking kids out to the school courtyard.

“Because this is what has been said, just: ‘go back to school, but do it outdoors’. But […] outdoor education means having an educational project, in which there is also a flexible approach to the way days are organized.”

That means being prepared to rethink plans if the weather changes or if children are drawn to a different activity, she explains. And more fundamentally, it involves encouraging children to learn through experience, by exploring, coming up with their own hypotheses and testing them out – a world away from the lecture-style lessons that tend to dominate Italian schools.

'Kids have trouble with freedom as well'

At Padre O. Marella primary school where Massaro’s colleague Laila Evangelisti teaches 9-10 year olds partly outdoors, her classes aren’t divided into subjects – one hour for Italian, one hour for maths, etc – but are interdisciplinary.

Studying the history of Ancient Egypt might lead to recreating early measuring devices and testing them out, leading into learning mathematical concepts like metres and centimetres. And rather than a fixed programme, Evangelisti gives her students “a series of inputs” that may or may not lead in the direction she expects.

“That’s what we understand as the real point… allowing more freedom of choice for the students, allowing them to freely explore and kind of drive their own learning. And it’s definitely difficult to do that within the constraints of the curriculum,” says Tory Dandrige, a high school biology teacher at Marymount International School in Rome, which opened its own forest school a few months before the pandemic in autumn 2019.

Most outdoor education is geared towards younger children, who have a broader curriculum and fewer exams. That doesn’t mean it can’t work for older pupils, but among secondary teachers at Marymount “because it was a little bit more difficult and they were unfamiliar with it there was some reluctance to use the space,” says Dandridge.

Teaching outdoors can be daunting at any grade, she acknowledges: for teachers, who have to keep students safe and focused in a new environment, but also for pupils, who may not be used to not being told exactly what to do.

“They really enjoy it, but kids have trouble with freedom as well, I’ve noticed. It’s letting them know that it’s ok to explore, it’s ok to have not exactly the right answer sometimes. That’s hard for them sometimes.”


'Everything will be ok': children in Italy have been away from school longer than any others in Europe. Photo: Marco Bertorello/AFP

There are also parents to consider, who are perhaps less accustomed to risk taking than their counterparts in Denmark, where children are typically encouraged to play independently from a young age.

While Marymount carries out regular risk assessments on its forest school, “we can’t take away the risk because forest school is about risk taking too,” says Julie Finan, who is responsible for coordinating outdoor learning for the school’s youngest pupils. The school invited parents to a meeting in the proposed space to get them on board, she says, while she completed specialised training in the UK that helped prepare her to lead lessons safely.

In Bologna, Massaro says, the infant school she directs invited paediatricians to speak to parents about the benefits of outdoor learning for developing psychomotor skills. The school takes children outdoors in autumn and winter as well as in warmer months, so parents need to know what arrangements are in place for bad weather. “Families must be involved, they must feel reassured,” Massaro says.

'You can practice it in a city full of concrete'

Then there’s the question of resources: most schools in big cities, especially public ones, don’t have the spacious campus that a private school like Marymount does in Rome. In Ivrea, Alce Rosso adapted its programme to the grounds of council-owned kindergartens, but most of its activities take place in an actual Unesco World Heritage site.

Space needn’t be a barrier, says Evangelisti, who teaches at a regular Italian state school. “It's a practice of teaching in different spaces, so you don't necessarily need a park – you can practice it in a city full of concrete, as long as there is a bit of space where you can go out with the kids, as long as there is sky above your head.”

“There is not much to adapt – everything you do indoors you can also do outdoors, with some small changes at very little cost,” says Giordana Ronci, co-founder of L’Asilo Nel Bosco, an outdoor school in Ostia near Rome that relies on parents paying what they can according to their means. “The mentality is the main thing, being in nature to learn from nature, something that in our culture is not really understood.”

One resource that is essential, however, is teachers. Smaller classes are already best practice in outdoor teaching, while limiting groups is also an important precaution against Covid-19. For summer schools in Italy, which were allowed to open on June 15th, the government has mandated a minimum of one adult for every five children aged 3-5, one per seven for 6-11 year olds, and one per ten for children aged 12-17.


A makeshift forest school in France, where teachers are also experimenting in the wake of the pandemic. Photo: Jeff Pachoud/AFP

While teachers in Ivrea loved working with smaller groups, “obviously the cost of services is much higher and either parents or the local council or (in our case private foundations) have to foot at least part of the bill,” says Burton.

Though parents paid just €10 a day for the programme it ran on school grounds, the cost was subsidized by the local council using the money it would usually spend on its creche and after-school clubs from March to early June, which this year had to close. They also reaped the benefits of Alce Rosso’s grant funding, which had already allowed the cooperative to spend several months training its educators and conducting practice runs.

The new group limits have already meant reducing class hours at the summer school run by L’Asilo Nel Bosco, says Ronci. Hiring more educators and reducing class sizes must be a top priority if the government wants to encourage outdoor teaching, she says: “Because working with the numbers they work with now, state school teachers are heroines.”

Italy will hire some 78,000 extra teachers for the next school year, according to the Ministry of Education, which says it will give schools more than €1.6 billion to help prepare to reopen – though the funds are also supposed to cover the cost of cleaning and adapting school buildings and expanding access to digital resources.

Teachers across Italy have held protests calling on the government to make hiring a higher priority, with one union estimating that some 150,000 extra staff would be needed to enforce social distancing in the classrooms currently available.

'A more stimulating, less static way of learning'

To work at its best, shifting Italian schooling outdoors would need significant commitment from educational authorities as well a change in what teachers, parents and even children expect from lessons.

But done properly, the benefits have the potential to extend well beyond this pandemic. Teachers told The Local that they’d seen their pupils become more confident, creative, curious and better able to work in groups.

“She has no problems being in nature whatever the weather,” Elena Stignani says of her 10-year-old daughter Emma, who is in Laila Evangelisti’s class.


Children in southeast France head to lessons in the forest. Photo: Jeff Pachoud/AFP

Stignani knows better than most the results of outdoor education, having herself been taught by teachers who were already applying similar principles some 40 years ago.

“When children are outside in a group they are more at liberty to express themselves freely, it's less formal, emotions come out more fluidly and the exchanges that come out of that are enriching,” she says. “It’s a more stimulating, less static way of learning… And basically, if you learn to be in nature you learn to respect it. It's easier to foster conscious adults.”

Italian Education Minister Lucia Azzolina, herself a former secondary school teacher, has said that she wants the Covid-19 crisis to “become an extraordinary incentive to improve the education system and foster innovation in teaching”.

That needn’t only mean installing broadband in every classroom and buying every child a tablet; in fact, it could mean switching off the screen, stepping away from the desk, and going outside.

Megan Iacobini de Fazio contributed reporting for this story.

Confronting Coronavirus: This article is part of a new series of articles in which The Local's journalists across Europe are taking an in-depth look at the responses to different parts of the crisis in different countries; what's worked, what hasn't, and why.

This article has been supported by the Solutions Journalism Network, a nonprofit organisation dedicated to rigorous and compelling reporting about responses to social problems.

The SJN has given The Local a grant to explore how different countries are confronting the various affects of the coronavirus crisis and the successes and failures of each approach.

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READER INSIGHTS

What schools do foreigners in Sweden send their children to and are they happy?

Most foreign parents in Sweden told The Local's survey they take advantage of the country's school choice system and send their children to international schools, or to private or non-profit free schools. Here's what they think of the quality of teaching.

What schools do foreigners in Sweden send their children to and are they happy?

Our survey was not scientific, but out of the 157 people who responded before we closed it, 65 (41 percent) sent their child or children to a standard municipally-run school which did not offer an international programme as part of their teaching. More than a third (34 percent) sent their child to an international school offering the International Baccalaureate diploma (which could be municipal, private, or non-profit).

Almost a quarter (39 respondents, 24.4 percent) sent their children to a profit-making free school. And almost a fifth (29 respondents, 18 percent) sent their child or children to a free school run by a non-profit organisation.

The survey was carried out as part of The Local’s investigation into schools in Sweden. We’ve previously published interviews with foreign teachers at the IES (Internationella Engelska Skolan, International English School) free school chain herehere, and here, and are now looking into other schools as well.

Since the “free school reform” in 1992, private and non-profit companies have been able to run schools in Sweden, with the state paying them for each pupil educated. 

The system has come under growing criticism over the past ten years.

This has partly been due to a decline in the performance of Swedish pupils compared to those of other countries in the OECD’s Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA). The system of school choice has been blamed for increasing segregation. 

In the run-up to September’s election, schools are likely to be one of the big issues. 

Prime Minister Magdalena Andersson looks set to campaign on a pledge to ban free schools – dismissed as marknadsskolan, “schools driven by market forces” – from siphoning off profits. 

“The school system we have in Sweden today, which is unique in the world and no other country has chosen to imitate, is a system which essentially drives increased segregation,” she said in an interview in the Svenska Dagbladet newspaper at the end of last month. 

“Researchers are pretty much unanimous about that. Pupils with the worst prospects are collected together in one school and those with better prospects in another.”  

Prime Minister Magdalena Andersson of the centre-left Social Democrat party. Photo: Jonas Ekströmer/TT

Swedish schools too slow 

The most common complaint from parents who answered the survey was that the pace of education at municipality-run schools was too slow, and the level of academic demands placed on their children too low. 

“[It’s] very slow-paced,” complained a US mother living in Uppsala. [The] education is several years behind grade level in the US.” 

Mangla Sekhri, an Indian mother and IT director based in Stockholm, said she had pulled her children out of the local municipality school after a year and moved them to a school run by the IES chain.

“[I] just couldn’t continue due to [the] slow pace there. It was very slow, but now at IES things are much better-paced.” 

READ ALSO: 

“The only thing which bothers me is lower expectations on the kids, compared to Poland where we come from,” said a Polish respondent. 

“She’s ahead of the other children because she’d already finished two years of school in Guernsey. They don’t give her learning materials of a high enough level without us asking them to,” complained a father from the British Isles. 

Better integration at municipal schools 

For those who had chosen to send their children to a standard, municipality-run school, the big attraction was better integration, both in Sweden and in their local neighbourhood. 

“Their peers and friends at the school are generally their neighbours as well, [so it’s] easy to hang out with school friends,” said an American living on Sweden’s northwest coast, whose four children all went through the local municipal school. 

“My now eight-year-old daughter learned Swedish within months. One year on, she’s completely fluent. She has also made many Swedish friends and has playdates several days a week,” said a British father living in Gävle. 

“If you are an immigrant and planning to settle down in Sweden then municipal schools are good options for your child to learn Swedish quickly,” agreed a dad from Bangladesh, living in Malmö. 

More flexibility and better discipline at private schools

Many of those who had chosen to send their children to a privately-run free school seemed to prize the additional flexibility and better discipline they offered. 

“My child was already three years ahead academically and was very bored in lessons (had already learned everything in maths and science in the UK), so IES let him attend higher years group classes in these subjects,” reported an English respondent living in the middle of Sweden. 

“Free schools have stricter discipline and they focus more on studies,” said a mother from Sri Lanka whose child went to a school run by the Kunskapskolan chain. 

“I like the discipline and all the support that teachers give to the students,” said a mother whose child goes to a school run by IES. 

A parent whose child went to a school run by the AcadeMedia chain, said they were drawn by the additional subjects, such as music and theatre, on offer. 

Better possibilities to study internationally and move schools if posted elsewhere

Those who chose to send their children to schools running the International Baccalaureate programme did so either because they liked the programme’s more demanding curriculum or because they were only on a short or medium-term posting to Sweden and wanted to make it easier for their children to shift their education to a new country. 

One parent, whose child went to the British International School of Stockholm, cited the “ease of transferring to a new school when moving to a new country”, and “exposure to different cultures and points of view” as advantages. 

“I love the IB. It’s one of the best but also most challenging educational systems in the world and this is widely recognised,” said one parent, whose child goes to the international school run by the Bladins Foundation in Malmö.

“Here in Malmö, the big risk is that there are no options for the final years outside the one school. If your child doesn’t achieve the academic standard required, then you are screwed.” 

Who was happiest with their choice of school? 

There was little variation in parent satisfaction between those who sent their children to a municipal, private or international school. 

The parents who sent their children to standard municipal schools rated their school on average at 7.7 out of 10. Those who sent their children to a privately run free school rated their school at 8.2, while those who sent their children to a school run by a non-profit organisation rated their children’s school the highest at 8.6. 

Those whose children went to a school running the International Baccalaureate programme rated the school on average at 8.3. 

There was slightly more variation between types of schools when parents broke down their ratings, with standard municipal schools falling further behind on the level of discipline parents perceived at their children’s schools, and also on the quality of extra-curricular activities.

  Overall Teaching Happiness of child Discipline Extra-curricular
Standard municipal 7.7 7.4 8.3 7.1 6.6
For-profit 8.2 8 8.5 7.9 7.4
Non-profit 8.6 8.6 9 8.5 7.1
International school 8.25 8.2 8.8 8 7.3

Which individual schools/chains came out tops? 

The schools which won the highest approval rating tended to be the international schools run by non-profit foundations, such as British International School Stockholm, Bladins International in Malmö, The English School Gothenburg, Sigtunaskolan, and Stockholm International School (although note that there were only one to three respondents for each of these schools). 

When it came to the for-profit free school chains, there was more variation, with some parents loving their children’s schools and others disappointed. 

Four parents sending their children to the IES chain gave the school ten out of ten, but two IES parents gave their school four or five out of ten. It was a similar story with the Kunskapskolan chain, where one parent gave an eight, another a four.

“The best thing about my child’s school is how respectful the children are towards each other,” send one parent who sent her child to an IES school. “There is a culture of the children being kind and supportive of each other. The teachers have all been amazing, and it’s been really interesting for my child to meet teachers from a huge variety of different countries.” 

Several IES parents also praised how well organised their child’s school was, with high standards of cleanliness and discipline. 

“I chose IES because the school inculcates the right values that I would like my children to have – discipline, respect for teachers, diligence in studying, academic excellence,” one wrote. 

“The staff seem genuinely interested in our concerns. The kids enjoy being there and enjoy learning,” wrote another. 

On the negative side, one noted that “teachers are not paid as well as [at] public schools”, another that “teachers are very often changing”, and another that “no proper curriculum [had been] followed”. 

In general, the most dissatisfied parents had children at municipal schools, perhaps because they were less likely to have actively chosen them. Ten respondents gave their municipality-run school a four or five overall. 

“[There is] nothing to do in their free time and an extremely low level of teaching,” complained one parent, while another complained of “incompetent staff with a lack of social-emotional intelligence”, and another of “extremely large classes”. 

“I’m not entirely sure of the quality of the education,” wrote one Irish parent. “At least one of the teachers seems to think the Republic of Ireland is part of the UK.” 

A particular complaint about municipal schools was the way teachers seemed unwilling to use imaginative and engaging teaching methods. “Some teachers are not able to engage the class with interesting teaching methods,” complained an Australian father. 

Given the level of variation in answers to The Local’s questionnaire between both the best and worst municipality-run schools and the best and worst schools run by the free school chains, it is clearly important to talk to local parents about which school in your area of Sweden seems best. 

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