How Toronto schools adapted to a health crisis a century ago: open-air learning

Medical wisdom held that sunshine and fresh air could aid in the fight against tuberculosis. So, in 1912, the city opened its first forest school
By Monika Warzecha - Published on Jul 20, 2020
The Victoria Park Forest School, July 29, 1913. (City of Toronto Archives. Fonds 1231, Item 1010)

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The opening of Toronto’s first forest school on June 20, 1912, was successful, despite a few hitches. The faces of the 40 “small, ill-nourished” children exiting the King Street East trolley car near Victoria Park were “wreathed in smiles,” the Toronto Star reported. But 10 students got lost along the way, and one of the teachers spent the morning wandering the woods by the lake in search of the open-air classroom.

In the 19th century, tuberculosis was a leading cause of death in the industrialized world. In Ontario, the mortality rate was 160 per 100,000 in 1900. A reporter for the Star called TB the “greatest of modern scourges.” The contagious disease, spread by bacteria through the air, most often affects the lungs and manifests in coughing, fevers, and weight loss. In the early 20th century, sunshine and fresh air were thought to be the best cure available — and sanitoria sprang up across the Alps and in the forests of northern Europe.

Gravenhurst became home to the world’s first free tuberculosis hospital when the Muskoka Free Hospital for Consumptives opened in 1902. The site was chosen for its clean air, and patients in the early stages of the disease spent 10 to 12 hours a day outside, no matter the weather.

children sit at desks outside
Forest school in High Park, 1922. (James & Son)

Doctors at the time believed that TB often took root in childhood before becoming a full-blown disease in adults. Health and education officials in Toronto mobilized and adapted to the crisis, establishing a new approach that eventually became an entrenched part of the city’s school system for decades: open-air learning.

Forest schools, pioneered in Germany in the early years of the 20th century, took off across Europe before spreading to the United Kingdom and the United States. Toronto adopted open-air learning, though other Ontario cities, such as Hamilton, built open-air classrooms near sanatoriums or preventoriums.

W. E. Struthers, chief medical officer of the Toronto Board of Education, visited early forest schools in Germany and England before setting up the city’s first forest school in the east end in 1912. The Star reported that the school — where children spent hours in the fresh air playing, learning, and napping — was such a success that officials were inundated with applications for the next year.

In July 1914, Struthers and the board opened the city’s second forest school, this one for 114 students in High Park. Architects specifically built the Orde Street Public School in 1915 to accommodate open-air learning — and sleeping — on the roof. Located near University Avenue and College Street, the school still stands today, and the roof is still in use.

By 1928, Toronto’s board of education and public-health officials were running two forest schools and five open-air schools. An 1928 article published in the Public Health Journal by F. S. Burke, the city’s director of medical services, described the differences. Forest schools were open from early May to late October and were entirely in the open, with a few tents or wooden pavilions in case of bad weather. Children went back to their regular schoolrooms when their outdoor term ended in the fall. The Victoria Park Forest School, located on a sandy cliff near the lake, took in 220 children in six classes, ranging from grades 1 to 4. The High Park Forest School was located not far from Bloor Street in the northwest corner of the park. It was made up of 260 children in nine classes.

The five open-air schools, which likely included Orde Street, as well as Wilkinson Public School, near Danforth and Donlands, were less outdoorsy but still focused on fresh air and long naps. The open-air classes were housed in regular school buildings and, Burke wrote, “differ only from a standard class room in the type of combined desk seat, which is movable and the special arrangements of windows.”

Students, Burke added, “get a morning nourishment, a hot mid-day meal and an afternoon nourishment. They are also provided with a heavy warm coat with a hood and blankets.The children carry out a very similar routine to forest school, including a two-hour sleep after lunch. In good weather they sleep outside on a flat roof that is protected by a high parapet. On rainy days some sleep under a verandah and some in the class room.”

The article didn’t indicate how many students took part in the open-air classes in the regular schools. However, a 1946 Globe and Mail article reported that open-air classes in the Orde Street and Wilkinson schools could accommodate 90 kids and that 60 students participated in the program at St. Patrick Separate School.

children wear hats and jackets in a classroom
The Orde Street open-air school on October 31, 1919. (City of Toronto Archives. Fonds 200, Series 372, Subseries 32, Item 613)

Burke also published the High Park Forest School’s schedule, calling it a “a well regulated programme which blends hygiene and academic work skilfully together.” Children were often given milk or cocoa as well as regular meals, and teeth cleaning and sleep made up a major part of the day:

8:45–9 a.m. Teachers' preparation

9–9:05 a.m. Opening exercises

9:05–9:30 a.m.  Academic work

9:30–9.50 a.m. Morning milk

9:50–10 a.m. Making of beds

10–11:00 a.m. Academic work

11–11:30 a.m. Sun bath

11:30–11:40 a.m. Free period

11:40 a.m.–12 p.m. Wash drill

12–12:45 p.m.  Dinner

12:45–1 p.m. Tooth brush drill

1–3 p.m. Sleeping

3–3:10 p.m. Putting blankets away

3:10–3:45 p.m. Folk dancing, games, swimming, manual training

3:45–4 p.m. Afternoon milk

4–4:30 p.m.  Academic work

In May 1922, a Toronto Star reporter effusively described the forest schools: “Victoria Park has the advantage of the lake but the air under the pines and maples of High Park is very sweet ...Small girls frisked over forms and striped chipmunks frisked after them, quite as though they were all of one family.”

During routine physical exams, a school medical officer would make a list of children that might benefit from a forest school. Students chosen were often those who had come in close contact with someone with TB but showed no active signs of the disease or who suffered from malnutrition, asthma, or chorea, a disorder characterized by involuntary and abnormal movements.

According to Burke, health officials focused on “pre-tuberculous” candidates — “those who are persistently more than 10% under-weight, pale, nervous and subject to frequent illnesses.” Open-air schools took similar candidates, although they prioritized students who might benefit more from an open-air class year-round than from the spring-to-fall program of the forest schools.

The success of the schools was measured by the literal weight of the students. The Public Health Journal presented “typical cases,” such as that of Dorothy, a 12-year-old girl who was admitted to a forest school at the start of the term. Ten pounds underweight, she had been “sallow, stooped and listless.” By fall, she had gained 15.75 pounds: there had been a “decided improvement in posture and colour,” and she had become “active and interested.”

The blurry, out-of-focus photos of forest schools from a century ago have a fairytale-like quality — the small children sit at their desks dwarfed by enormous trees. It’s as though Hansel and Gretel stumbled into the woods and found a classroom instead of a witch’s cottage.

However, most of the information about the forest schools that remains today originally came from proponents who were evangelical about improving children they literally labelled “backward.” The movement might have been well-meaning, but it was also paternalistic and combined fresh air and sunshine with highly regimented schedules and surveillance.

Weigh-ins were regular — a 1956 Globe and Mail article made reference to a “weight parade”; High Park Forest School pupils were grouped together by weight gain and made to march in front of the attendees at a Home and School Association meeting. Photos of students from the Orde Street school, published in the 1920s, show them lined up for the cameras with tags recording their chest development. Many of the glowing reports published in the Toronto Star appeared alongside pleas for donations to the newspaper’s Fresh Air Fund, which supplied food for the forest-school students. An avid supporter in Britain, Hugh Broughton, even claimed that children slept “most satisfactorily” when a chilly wind was blowing.

a young girl is weighed
Weighing children at the forest school in High Park on June 13, 1917 (John Boyd / Library and Archives Canada)

Though health and education officials in the early 1930s argued that more open-air classes should be opened, enrolment petered out after the Second World War. Streptomycin was discovered in 1946, and other antibiotics were widely used to fight tuberculosis in the 1950s. According to the Public Health Association, the number of TB beds in Canada dropped from 18,977 in 1953 to 9,722 in 1963. The Board of Education closed the High Park Forest School for good in 1964. However, the deadly disease was and still is a major problem today in Indigenous communities and among the homeless and newcomers from countries where TB is still rampant.

Forest schools and open-air classes may seem like a relic of the past. But, as the world faces a new public-health crisis with COVID-19, health officials and some journalists are suggesting a return to outdoor learning. In a June report on reopening schools, Toronto’s Hospital for Sick Children included outdoor classes among its list of suggestions. An article in Treehugger argued in favour of bringing back forest schools, and Denmark, Italy and some American cities are experimenting with outdoor classes. Educators in the North are also seeing an opportunity to take Indigenous students out on the land.

Boughton’s book on the open-air movement, published in 1911, includes an echo of the past: “In the days of long ago it was the common practice of the student to go into field and forest, on the hillside, or by the river, to learn what he could … The Open Air School is but another instance of history repeating itself.”

Sources: The Open Air School by Hugh Broughton (London: Sir Isaac Pitman & Sons, 1911); "Forest Schools as an Adjunct to School Health" by F. S. Burke (Ottawa: The Public Health Journal, 1928); the June 13, 1912, June 20, 1920, August 5, 1920, January 14, 1922, editions of the Toronto Star; October 17, 1956, edition of the Globe and Mail.

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