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When Fears of Tuberculosis Drove an Open-Air School Movement

July 30, 2020 in History

By Sarah Pruitt

Intended to curb the spread of tuberculosis, open-air schools grew into a major international movement in the early 1900s.

As the 20th century dawned, tuberculosis—otherwise known as consumption, “white plague” or “white death”—had become the leading cause of death in the United States. The dreaded lung disease killed an estimated 450 Americans a day, most of them between the ages of 15 and 44.

At the time, tuberculosis was associated with dirty, unhygienic living conditions, which were common for the workers who had packed into the cities of Europe and the United States since the Industrial Revolution. With no effective medicine available (yet), the preferred treatment was the open-air cure, or exposing patients to as much fresh air and sunlight as possible. This led to the proliferation of tuberculosis sanitariums, ranging from luxe spa-like resorts to government-run institutions across Europe and the United States.

Though many of its victims were poor city dwellers, no one was immune to tuberculosis—especially not children. In fact, doctors and educators believed that the crowded classrooms and lack of fresh air in many schools helped spread the disease. To keep kids healthy, they decided to take school outside.

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Germany’s Pioneering ‘Forest School for Sickly Children’

Children learning outdoors at a Waldschule, meaning forest school, in Charlottenburg, Germany.

The open-air school movement was launched in Germany in 1904, when Dr. Bernhard Bendix, a leading German pediatrician, and Hermann Neufert, a Berlin school inspector, opened the first Waldschule für kränkliche Kinder (or “forest school for sickly children”) in Charlottenburg, near Berlin. True to its name, the school was located in the heart of a nearby forest, with simple wooden buildings used for instruction in cold or rainy weather. Students commuted from the city and most suffered from pre-tuberculosis symptoms such as anemia or swollen glands.

That first Waldschule launched a movement that spread quickly across Europe, with similar experimental schools opening in Belgium, Italy, England, Switzerland and Spain. After World War I, the movement became more formalized. The League for Open Air Education spearheaded the first International Congress, held in Paris in 1922; four more international conferences had taken place by 1956.

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Open-Air Schools in the United States

Open-air class in manual training on the boat Southfield at Bellevue Hospital in …read more


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