With some schools moving outdoors, retailers follow
By Mike Seely
Amy Jackson, an early-education instructor at the Center School in Greenfield, Massachusetts, remembers one rainy day a few years ago when she was outside with her students.
They thought they were prepared. Everyone was wearing rain gear, and ropes and tarps were used to erect a makeshift shelter. But soon the children were “cold, wet, droopy,” and heading back inside became inevitable.
“The only child in good spirits was the one wearing the Oaki one-piece rainsuit,” Jackson said, referring to the company that makes outdoor apparel for children.
The Center School has committed to an all-outdoor curriculum this fall to guard against the spread of the coronavirus among its students and staff. Tents and outdoor desks have been procured to create al fresco classrooms. The school has also recommended that parents buy their children Oaki rainsuits, priced at $60 to $70.
They are not the only ones.
With a number of U.S. schools opting for outdoor education over the potentially germier confines of their traditional indoor spaces, demand for Oaki’s rainsuits and related gear “has been overwhelming,” said Sam Taylor, chief executive of the company, which is based near Salt Lake City. It is a sentiment echoed by other outdoor-oriented companies, some of which are launching new product lines or repurposing existing ones to capitalize on how the pandemic has changed the education experience.
Taylor said demand for Oaki products has increased 60% this year, a challenge because the company is experiencing pandemic-related delays with its manufacturers in India and Mexico. As a result, Taylor has “prioritized individual schools or parents” over warehouse and retail orders. He has also rushed to market a line of fleece and wool socks that don’t need to be washed every day, in response to a request from a Vermont school.
“There’s been a ton of research that’s shown how productive being outside is,” Taylor said. “There’s no reason a little moisture or rain should stop that. If anything, that should be a positive if you’ve got the right gear.”
Those searching for weatherproof supplies have also turned to Rite in the Rain, a century-old company based in Tacoma, Washington, that sells waterproof products including notebooks and printer paper.
“We start with a wet-strength, virgin-grain paper, then we coat it using a proprietary machine and process and formula,” said Ryan McDonald, its director of marketing. “The process allows for water to bead up on the paper but still allow for writing.”
Fifty percent of Rite in the Rain’s business comes from the government, mostly the military. But aside from “pretty decent business with college bookstores,” McDonald said, it hadn’t focused much on students until recently, with an increase in orders from elementary and high schools.
Bienenstock Natural Playgrounds has also shifted its focus. Bienenstock, a Canadian business that has an office in the Denver area, designs and builds school playgrounds, but when the pandemic shut schools in March, “that was the end to that side of the business,” said Adam Bienenstock, the company’s founder and principal designer.
But Adam Bienenstock was prepared because of an “ace in the hole”: his father, mucosal immunologist Dr. John Bienenstock.
“We started our conversation around Christmas, about how our immune systems were going to react to this; how this was ‘the one,’” Bienenstock said.
So Bienenstock began creating log-based outdoor classrooms, called OutClass, that schools can set up in less than a day. He said year-over-year inquiries for his products from school administrators are up about 600%.
“Normally in August, you can’t get a hold of anyone, but we’ve actually had superintendents calling us, which is freakish,” he said.
While several major metro public school districts have expressed interest, Bienenstock said many “have been frozen” by the pandemic.
“The decision-making is cumbersome,” he said. “This thing is moving too fast.”
Bienenstock designed OutClass so the classrooms can be converted into play structures whenever schools return to traditional indoor instruction.
“I’d prefer to be doing the play-based stuff and not have to deal with any of this,” he said. “But if this gets people to realize that teaching outside is a great thing and we should have been doing more of this before the pandemic, then I’ll take it.”
Some parents are also trying to add an outdoor component to the remote learning experience.
Household clients “almost doubled compared to the same period last year,” said Jonathan Degenhardt, managing director of Deuter USA, whose backpacks are popular with parents and teachers alike. “Because they’re spending more time outdoors, either due to formal or informal learning, we’re seeing increased spending on outdoor products.”