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As Winter Looms, Outdoor Schools Face Tough Decisions

Leonardi has also been soliciting monetary donations from the community to pay for winter shelters. Right now, the schools’ outdoor structures consist of rented tents, which can’t withstand high winds or heavy snow. She is considering buying greenhouses that she can keep ventilated (by opening doors) and warm (with electric heaters).

Schools are experimenting with less expensive ways of keeping kids comfortable, too. The Juniper Hill School in Alna, Maine, which has long embraced outdoor learning, has hot tea available for its students as well as hand and toe warmers, and often a bonfire. The school also advises parents to pack extra snacks (for energy) and insulated and hot meals (for warmth) on the coldest days.

Some schools give students rubber hot water bottles to keep against their bodies. “They’ll just tuck them down into their snow pants and go for hikes with their core being warmed,” said Nell Wiener, the head of program at the Monadnock Waldorf School in Keene, N.H.

Wiener and Adrienne Hofmann, Juniper Hill’s early childhood director, emphasized that keeping kids moving is essential on freezing days. “If I think the children are cold, I just put them to work. We’ll stack firewood,” Hofmann said. At Mackintosh, classes move around the campus’s 23 acres to follow the sunshine throughout the day.

How students dress is also important. “Layers, layers, layers,” is what Petra Obritzberger, the director of German International School Chicago, which has erected tents in its parking lot as outdoor classrooms, tells parents. Hofmann agreed, adding, “we often tell our parents if you’re not sure what to pack, pack it all.”

Wool is better than cotton, since it “can get wet and still keep you warm,” said Matthew Schlein, the founder and director of the Walden Project public school program in Vergennes, Vt., who has been teaching outdoors for 21 years. Waterproof outer layers help, too. “Rainproof mittens are absolutely essential,” Hofmann said.

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