Bring back the Open Air School

One way to keep kids healthy is to give them light, air, and openness.

Dr. Trump has been prescribing ultraviolet light recently, and he is not the first to do so; after Koch and Pasteur introduced the germ theory, fresh air, sunlight, and space became a prescription for preventing tuberculosis. It's the same thinking about light, air and openness that was the foundation of the modern movement in architecture.

At the turn of the 20th century, many thought it important to get pre-tubercular city children out into the open air and away from crowded cities, but they also needed an education. It seems like we have a similar situation now; kids who need some fresh air and sunlight, but also a bit of separation. Perhaps it's time to have another look at the idea of the Open Air School.

It was born in 1904 near Berlin, the first Waldschule für kränkliche Kinder (forest school for sickly children) in Charlottenburg, near Berlin. There was a dormitory building, but classes were taught in the forest, “which was believed to help build independence and self-esteem in urban youths,” something that Katherine Martinko would probably write posts about on TreeHugger today.

Children bundled up in Chicago open air schoolOpen Air School, on roof of Mary Crane Nursery, Chicago/ F.P. Burke. Library of Congress./Public Domain

The idea spread around the world, coming to Rhode Island in 1908 and to Chicago in 1911. And if you can do it in a Chicago winter, you can do it anywhere.

However, it was after the First World War, with tuberculosis rampant and the horrors of the Spanish flu, that the Open Air School movement took off. According to the Encyclopedia of Children and Childhood in History and Society, there were international congresses and conferences, and experts “created the International Bureau of Open Air Schools to collect information on how these schools worked. Testimonies described an educational experience inspired by New Education, with much physical exercise, regular medical checkups, and a closely monitored diet, but there has been little formal study of the majority of these schools.”

Paul Overy writes: “In a time when many people still lived in overcrowded dark and insanitary housing conditions, light, air and openness were regarded as the main priorities in educational as well as hospital or sanatorium buildings, considered as a means of compensating for the lack of these elements in children's homes.” The Open Air School movement expanded rapidly, and Overy tells us that architects “enthusiastically adopted the latest ideas about the hygienic benefits of light and fresh air in educational buildings, eager to exploit the newly developed structural techniques and materials which made it possible to employ very large areas of glass, cantilevered concrete balconies, and flat floors roofs that could support roof terraces.”

These are, of course, the same elements that were key to the modern movement in architecture, and the roots of minimalism. One of the most famous examples is Jan Duiker's Cliostraat Open Air School in Amsterdam from 1927. Duiker designed the influential Zonnestraal Sanitarium (here on TreeHugger) with Bernard Bijvoet, who went on to work with Chareau on the Maison de Verre, neatly tying together the medical, educational and residential modern movements.

Overy notes also that Duiker compared his “new functionalism in architecture” with the wearing of light hygienic clothing such as T-shirts, “popular among young people.” He claimed that “a strong hygienic power is influencing our life; one which will develop into a style, a hygienic style!”

Ecole de plein air, Surèsnes

One of the most interesting buildings I have ever visited is the Open Air School in Surèsnes, outside of Paris. Designed by Beaudouin and Lods (whose only North American building is the French Embassy in Ottawa, Canada), it is a collection of pavilions with glass folding doors on three sides.

There were canvas blinds for solar protection in summer and radiant heating in the floors for winter. The children who came here were sick already, so it is designed with ramps instead of stairs. There were teaching areas outside and all the book cases and supply cabinets were on wheels so that they could be rolled out. Alas, I cannot find the slides from my visit in the late seventies, but it is a marvelous building.

The Open Air School movement didn't survive the Second World War; the buildings were high maintenance but more importantly, circumstances had changed. Children no longer lived in such crowded, unsanitary homes, and the educational climate had changed. Overy writes that the outdoor classes were considered too distracting and uncontrollable, and “despite the renewed emphasis on healthy bodies, fitnesses and physical exercise today, such features are still often regarded as inappropriate in educational circles.” Today, even tiny windows are considered distracting and as James Howard Kunstler has noted, schools are built more like prisons.

Heliotherapy at Open Air School Heliotherapy at Open Air School /Archives municipales de Saint-Ouen/Public Domain

And of course, we got antibiotics for tuberculosis and vaccines for polio and nobody worried about children getting these deadly diseases anymore. And notwithstanding Dr. Trump's advice, they learned that treatment with ultraviolet light didn't do very much.

But I cannot help thinking that the original prescription of light, air, and openness remains a very good idea.

One way to keep kids healthy is to give them light, air, and openness.