Mitigating COVID-19’s Mental Health impacts through outdoor learning 

Dr. Catherine Malboeuf-Hurtubise and her team of faculty and undergraduate researchers are studying the effectiveness of outdoor education in improving students’ mental health in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, to assist teachers in Quebec in better supporting their students.

The project’s origins lay in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, when Dr. Malboeuf-Hurtubise was inundated with requests from her partners in schools asking for advice and aid. Having worked on mindfulness, philosophy, and art therapy for her entire career, the pandemic context elevated the need for Dr. Malboeuf-Hurtubise’s research and did not hinder it. After becoming a member of the Observatory for Children’s Education and Health (OPES) during the pandemic, Dr. Malboeuf-Hurtubise helped devise the project with colleagues there, Dr. Marie-Claude Geoffroy and Dr. Sylvana Côté. 

Dr. Marie-Claude Geoffroy of McGill University, the project’s lead principal investigator, submitted École à Ciel Ouvert for funding from the Canadian Institutes of Health Research (CIHR) as part of a special call for grants for projects mitigating the impact of COVID-19 in children. Translated into Open Skies School in English, the outdoor education program involves contact with nature to reduce mental health problems and improve the level of physical activity of children attending schools across Quebec. The project reasoned that outdoor learning would mitigate the spread of COVID. The project is part of the work of the recently created OPES, which aims to understand the pandemic context on children’s health and education. 

Dr. Malboeuf-Hurtubise, with her specialization in youth mental health, designed activities pertaining to different aspects of stress related to the pandemic: mindfulness, art therapy, and philosophy for children which she has run for several years. These mental health-related activities were adapted for the outdoors: mindfulness activities outside might resemble a walk, noting the sounds and sights and how they make one feel. Outdoor art therapy might include haiku composition or making a mandala with pieces scavenged from the park. Philosophy for Children, asks children existential questions within a safe space to reflect on these topics and exchange their ideas. 

Different principal investigators provide different activities, for instance, Jean-Philippe Ayotte Beaudet of the Université de Sherbrooke designed the educational activities that are part of the Open Skies School curriculum. These tools were provided during a pre-pilot program last spring to teachers for testing with their students. The researchers evaluated their feedback, Dr. Malboeuf-Hurtubise focusing on students’ mental health. During the Fall of 2022, the program launched its pilot program in preparation for the full project, including a randomized control trial in the Winter of 2023. 

This project is one of two COVID-19-related projects at Bishop’s University focusing on the pandemic’s impact that the CIHR is supporting as part of a competition it launched to address the challenges of the pandemic. The operation grant marks the first time Bishop’s researchers have obtained a CIHR grant as principal investigators. 

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