The Ambiguous Loss of Outdoor Education

The midpoint of July marks the second half of summer. Understandably, returning to school for the 2020-21 academic year is on the forefront of every teacher’s, parent’s, and student’s mind. Unfortunately, given the uptick in Covid-19 cases in many places, including Napa County, school will resume in continued distance learning mode.

County public health officials and school district administrators are working tirelessly to prepare for a safe student return to school. Let me be clear, I do not underestimate the importance and scope of this difficult work. However, amidst the health and safety concerns, I’ve started to mourn the loss of access to outdoor learning spaces.

Photo by cottonbro on

In my May post, I landed squarely on the side of garden-based educators to be mindful about reentering their gardens. Yet, months have passed and many gardens remain “off limits” to the communities they serve (the very communities that invested substantial time, money, and effort into building the gardens in the first place)!

Last week I had the opportunity to join one teacher in her garden to help reclaim the paths and complete a few chores. It was invigorating, but when I returned home, I had the realization that garden classrooms are a type of ambiguous loss for many educators–and an even more so for students!

I was first introduced to the term ambiguous loss on my meditative listening journey that started with the shelter-in-place order. Pioneered by Pauline Boss, ambiguous loss refers to the type of loss that is not as tangible as the death of a loved one, yet can have as traumatic an impact, especially if not addressed. It may be relational shift that occurs when a parent or spouse suffers from dementia, or the tremendous uncertainty felt when a soldier goes missing in action.

Boss asserts, “Rife with ambiguity, while such losses cannot be resolved, they can be acknowledged and supported by professionals or in community with others.”

Meanwhile, the Environmental Education community has rallied to share joint proposals for how schools can embrace and leverage outdoor education to make physical distancing more available, while also addressing the social-emotional learning needs (another ambiguous loss) to combat feelings of isolation and separation caused by the pandemic. I’ve listed just a few of these insightful resources below:

Leveraging outdoor education does not seem to be part of the reopening plan in the schools and districts in which I work, so The School Doctor will offer a different antidote to disconnection: Common Core Cooking is going online! In time for Food Literacy Month, we will release resources for connecting home and school through food education. Check back for updates in the coming weeks.

In other news, The School Garden Doctor WordPress blog is rebranding! In September, the title will change to Gleaning the Field, but the content will continue to capture and share evidence-based practices to sustain school gardens in the 21st century. With the title update, I will also remove all advertisements. I want to express my sincere gratitude for the growing community of followers and supporters. If you like what you read here, please consider also visiting or sharing my website (linked below).

As always, reach out to me via WordPress Comments, email, direct messaging on LinkedIn or Instagram, or follow me on Pinterest. Avoid ambiguous loss of community by staying connected to each other and the outdoor spaces in which you learn best!

Empowering teachers, schools, and communities to grow school gardens that enhance science education, nurture wellness, and foster environmental literacy.

3 Comments Add yours

  1. arlenebates says:

    Very well put Carrie!  I hope the district will take notice.  Frank won’t let us go clean up the BV garden- he says one or two teachers will do it.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks, Arlene! Collectively, I know we can make changes to these policies (or lack thereof).


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