Once upon a time, there was a pandemic, and the children stayed inside. With stay-at-home orders and school closures, contemporary childhood is not the same. Playgrounds are taped off, and many parks around the country are closed. Coronavirus is a generation-defining moment, and experts are already considering the term “Gen C” for those born during this time. Schools are adapting to parameters like social distancing, as set forth by the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, and thus "hybrid learning" has been born. The built environment of a school campus, a child’s home, and a computer screen are now co-creating the new modern classroom.
Many are fearing the consequences of this new, more technology-dominant approach on academic performance, especially within vulnerable communities without access to good technology at home or school lunch programs. What does this mean for the minds of young learners? Will this generation surpass the previous one in intelligence due to added technology, or are we “dumbing down”?
Hybrid thinking before COVID usually referred to a healthy balance of technology and nature in childhood development. In The Nature Principle (2011), Richard Louv describes hybrid thinkers as having the best of both worlds. He relates the experience of a cruise ship pilot instructor who trains young people. This pilot describes having two kinds of students: First are those who are good at video games and excellent at electronic steering. Second are the better pilots, who grew up outside, navigating in real space and having a much better understanding of where the ship is. Ideally, he says, we need people who have both ways of knowing the world.
Not having access to safe, open play spaces did not begin in 2020 with COVID. In fact, the pandemic is exacerbating an already existing trend of kids being pushed inside since the 1970s. According to Louv in his pivotal book, Last Child in the Woods (2005), community associations and government have been encroaching on and even criminalizing outdoor play for decades, with trespassing laws and the strict covenants of planned communities. According to 2019 statistics from the Foundation for Community Association Research, more than 25% of the US population now lives in planned communities or homeowner associations, with 73 million Americans currently living in nearly 350,000 community associations. City planners, educators, and parents will need to work together moving forward in co-creating a true hybrid education system.
Now, the question of access to wild spaces, with its accompanying environmental issues, is another article, but to begin where we are means re-considering contemporary school campus structures. The built environment has dramatic impacts on public health that extend beyond school buildings themselves to sidewalks, outdoor shaded areas, and even transportation systems. With good design, the classroom of the future will hybridize the best of outdoor and indoor spaces. The importance of hybrid mind-making is to be found by looking not only at the consequences for children today of excluding free play and outdoor education, but also at the abundance that can be gained by being in relationship with the more than human world. A way that pivots the negative, indoor, sedentary trends leading up to 2020 towards health, intelligence, and creativity for the young learners of today and tomorrow.