When Students Went to School in the Open Air

13 October 2017

The old black and white photograph certainly leaves one with an impression: children sitting at their desks, dressed warmly in coats, hats, and gloves, each swaddled in a sitting-out bag, with their eyes turned towards a teacher in front of a blackboard. It’s a classroom without walls, a dirt floor, nature encircling them all around, and clearly cold.  It’s 1918 in an unknown place somewhere in the Netherlands and an example of an open-air school.  Apparently, the current trend of taking the classroom outdoors popular among privileged, crunchy parents in Northern Europe and the United States isn’t a new phenomenon.

The concept of taking the classroom outdoors is old school, going all the way back to 1904. It initially had darker roots – to prevent and treat the widespread rise of tuberculosis. Dr. Bernhard Bendix and pedagogue Hermann Neufert established the first of its kind:  the Waldeschule (literally forest school) of Charlottenburg, a nature area near Berlin. The classes were conducted in the woods to offer a combination of open-air therapy and a classical education to city children with pre-tuberculosis. The open-air school followed a traditional classroom setting with students who sat at their desks and a teacher in the front giving a lesson. Except there was one crucial difference: everything preferably happened outside, rain, snow or shine. 

The pedagogical premise of open-air education is simple: consistent sunlight and fresh air are essential if children are to fulfill their mental and physical potential. Teaching and learning should be conducted as much as possible outdoors.


                                                                                   Two open-air classrooms in the middle of the dunes of Katwijk, 1924

An open-air classroom in the middle of the dunes of Katwijk, 1924

A group of students in Amsterdam’s first public open-air school, 1925. 


The message resonated deeply with parents and educators, and became a movement, sweeping across the rest of Europe and North America. The Netherlands embraced the idea, establishing the first open-air school – de Eerste Nederlandse Buitenschool– in 1905 in the Hague.

Open-air schools soon were established for healthy children too. By the 1930s, the classrooms were designed for easy access to sunshine and air – outdoor terraces with big bay windows, retractable roofs, sliding doors, and lightweight furniture. The most famous open-air school in the Netherlands is located in Amsterdam, designed by architect Jan Duiker.

Marianne Johnston has fond memories of attending an open-air school in Scheveningen in 1954. “The school was good with amazing teachers. We all had our own garden, grew radish, and some flowers. Some had a porridge breakfast there, and we all had a hot meal. After lunch, we had a rest on stretcher beds. There were also turkeys wandering outside.” says Johnstone. “All the children were there for health reasons. I enjoyed it. I still like being outside and always have the windows open.”


Children of the open-air school Oosterpark sleeping outside, Amsterdam 4 October 1950

Undated photograph of an open-air classroom in Amsterdam

The popularity of open-air schools started losing ground in the 1970s thanks to the introduction of antibiotics and improved living conditions for many people. Although most schools in the Netherlands currently follow the model of traditional school buildings, the importance of being and playing outside is still deeply ingrained in the culture. Children get plenty of recess, and part of the philosophy of having little homework after school is to encourage child-initiated playdates, preferably outdoors. And of course, like their adult counterparts, children are expected to bike everywhere – sometimes even experiencing all four seasons on the same day.  


As the Dutch love to say, “There’s no such thing as bad weather, just inappropriate clothing.”

open-air school

 What a dreamy way to learn about the seasons surrounded by trees

Photos are courtesy of the Dutch National Archives.