Open Air Schooling: A Pre-Pandemic Tradition

A class of schoolchildren on a ferry boat, with New York City in the background, 1911.

Schoolchildren on Day Camp Rutherford, a ferryboat, with New York City in the background, 1911. Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress.


Children wrapped up in blankets lying in deck chairs during a rest period in a classroom with open windows.

Rest Hour in A Fresh Air Classroom, Public School #51, Manhattan, New York City, 1911. Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress.

Since March 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic has brought many adjustments to our lives, including the way we learn. In education, students, teachers and families experienced virtual and hybrid classrooms, home schooling and learning pods. When schools reopened, the airborne virus led to more teaching and learning outdoors or with open windows.

While it may have been new to us, holding classes in fresh or open air for health reasons is an old idea. The first “waldschule” or forest school, opened in Germany in 1904. Situated in woodland just outside Berlin, it was a response to the large numbers of sickly, undernourished children whose poor living conditions exacerbated the spread of highly infectious diseases, particularly tuberculosis. Besides an education, the children received nourishing meals and had plenty of rest and playtime. All this took place outdoors as much as possible. The experiment was a success. The health, weight and academic achievements of the children improved and the school provided a model for similar establishments elsewhere.

Pictures in the Library’s Prints and Photographs Division document the growth of open air schools. These include images of a woodworking class in Austria, and reading and gardening classes in London. From Europe, the schools soon spread to America. In 1908, Mary Packard and Ellen Stone— two of the earliest female graduates of the Johns Hopkins University medical school— set up the Providence Open Air School in Rhode Island. Two years later 65 such schools operated nationwide; by 1918 they existed in 130 different cities. Classes took place in unusual locations such as on ferries, as in the image above, and rooftops. Lucky kids in California benefitted from a better climate than their counterparts in Chicago – although coping with hot summer temperatures might pose a challenge anywhere. No matter where the schools were, children learned practical skills and enjoyed a great deal of physical exercise. There were also classrooms run on the fresh air principle for children with physical disabilities and anemia. For more pictures of open air school life, take a look at the Goldsberry Collection.

Digitized publications in the collections give insights into the history and methodology of open air education. (Given the time they were written, some of these publications may use outdated terminology or portray outdated ideas.) Open-air Schools, (1910) describes the original German school and the spread of establishments in Europe and the United States (see the Contents pages for details.) Open Air Crusaders (1911), about the Elizabeth McCormick School in Chicago, includes moving profiles of tubercular students, like brothers Oliver and Wyburn, aged six and four (page 22), and thirteen-year-old Frances (page 24). Pictures show children’s living conditions (page 16), outdoor exercise (page 30), “the toothbrush drill” (page 76), an open window room (page 102) and more. A 1922 pamphlet from Indiana University claimed that every large city in America had at least one such institution and details the policies and daily routines of open air schools. Pages 9 – 11 describe the cold weather clothing and “sitting out bags” designed to keep children warm, recommended “health habits”, such as rest periodsteeth-brushing, and nutritious menus.

A letter from a 9 year old student describing the experience of attending an open air school

A letter from an open air school student, published in the New York Tribune newspaper, May 4, 1919.

A poster describing the benefits of open air schools in the fight against tuberculosis.

Poster from the 1920s, Open Air Schools and Tuberculosis. New York: National Child Welfare Association.
Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress.

In the pre-antibiotic early 1900s, (soon to face the deadly Spanish flu pandemic), the ever-present fear of infectious disease was a frequent theme in the press, and one of the chief reasons for promoting the schools. A 1915 profile of German doctor and scientist Robert Koch outlined his prominent role in the fight against the “scourge” of tuberculosis, and how his ideas were implemented. The Red Cross was heavily involved in combatting the spread of tuberculosis and directed fundraising efforts to support open air schools. Open air schools were also credited with reducing the spread of other common diseases. Children Thrive in Outdoor Studies gave this as the reason that many doctors’ children were enrolled at a school in London. At the end of the school year, vulnerable children could attend outdoor summer camps, as outlined in this piece about a Boston teacher and her charges.

In the tumultuous first decades of the 20th century, not all motivation for fresh air classes was benevolent. A 1915 photograph titled “Making Germans out of the Poles” shows German teachers instructing Polish children in a woodland school during World War I. The caption explains how this method “for the instruction of the conquered people” was a way to “Germanize them thoroughly”. With hindsight we can’t help but be aware of the terrible consequences that an extreme obsession with a healthy population, “fitter families” and the widespread interest in eugenics during this period would lead to just a few decades later. And of course, nowadays there are very different attitudes to disability, equality, and family separation.

By the mid 1900s, the use of antibiotics and other medical advances meant that the schools were no longer the best defense against tuberculosis and other infectious diseases. The number of open air schools dwindled, although some do still exist. Their legacy remains in the ways we think of fresh air, rest, good nutrition and physical exercise as vital parts of a healthy childhood. For that, we can thank pioneers like Dr. Bernhard Bendix and school inspector Hermann Neufert in 1904 Berlin, and Dr. Mary Packard and Dr. Ellen Stone in 1908 Providence, RI. In January 2023, as we navigate a combination of COVID-19, flu and respiratory viruses, these guidelines are just as important as they were a century ago. It’s fascinating how looking at the past can inform our lives today!

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