Daily life in America moves outdoors

As autumn temperatures grew chillier recently in Rock Island, Illinois, Mara Goodvin’s music students played a festive tune, pounding on xylophones and drums. Notes from contrabass chimes — large metal tubes mounted on 2.4-meter-tall poles — reverberated through the air, steady and deep.

Goodvin, who teaches children at Ridgewood Elementary, would play a rhythm, and the students would play it back.

But this class was not held inside a classroom or an orchestra pit. Instead, it was at the school’s new “music lab,” a place where students create songs using instruments permanently installed outside the school. And it is the new norm at Ridgewood.

“What’s really great about having all these instruments out there is that they’re really for everyone,” says Goodvin, who hopes to expand the music lab from five instruments today to 14 instruments down the road. “The neighborhood seems really excited to explore it. People come by and play them pretty much every day.”

Many restaurants in U.S. cities and towns have set up outdoor dining areas. (© Alexi Rosenfeld/Getty Images)

The coronavirus pandemic has pushed Americans to do activities outside more than ever before. Restaurants from New York to Seattle converted outdoor parking spaces into dining areas with tables and heaters. Theater shows and stand-up comedy acts found a place in the fresh air, while churches took their services under the open sky. Ballet, gymnastics, karate: It’s all happening outside. And the question people are asking themselves now is this: Why haven’t we been outside all along?

Everything under the sky

The outdoors are having a moment in the United States and the numbers show it. Nearly 161 million Americans say they did at least one activity for fun outside in 2020. That’s 7.1 million more than in 2019 and the most people ever, according to a report by the Outdoor Foundation. The most popular activities included running, with roughly 64 million participants, and hiking, with 58 million. Kids ages 6 to 17 prefer biking, camping and fishing, the report says.

Basketball, soccer and baseball all remain super popular, too, of course. But one typically does activities like those outside anyway, right? So what about other activities traditionally done inside? Are they moving outdoors like the music classes at Ridgewood Elementary?

In short, yes.

“The yoga studio I attend moved classes outside and I love it,” says Amanda Koumariotis on a Facebook group (Basecamp: Outdoor Jobs & More) that focuses on what’s happening in the outdoor industry.

Another group member, Martha Tuzson Stockton, said she takes ukulele lessons outside and often meets friends to watch popular television shows projected onto the exterior wall of a neighbor’s barn.

“Drive-in theaters are becoming super popular again, too, if that counts,” says Stephanie Merritt Johnson, co-founder of nonprofit B the Difference.

Feben Asfaw, while visiting from Denver, works in a free outdoor workspace in the business district of Washington. (© Sarah L. Voisin/The Washington Post/Getty Images)

One of the biggest pushes to get outside has nothing to do with play but everything to do with work. Companies like Apple and Nike, as well as smaller firms and even apartment building owners, are creating places for their employees and residents to do their jobs outside. Other companies, like Industrious, create spaces where anyone can work — “co-working” spaces, for short — and many of those include welcoming places to work and meet beyond the confines of an office.

“Being outdoors is great for collaborative work,” says Liz Simon, chief operating officer for Industrious. People are holding meetings while walking through the woods or brainstorming ideas for projects over picnics in the park. “Having different types of offices, let’s say, for doing different types of work is the new future of the office,” she says. “There’s a physical and mental benefit to being outside.”

As for Goodvin’s music lab, the benefits of being outside are clear. “It’s a wonderful way to learn,” she says.