How outdoor learning helps both students and teachers

Even a single hour per week of outdoor learning can have a tremendous impact on children’s learning outcomes while boosting teachers’ job satisfaction, research shows.

Credit: MaxPixel.

It is now an established fact that most people benefit from performing activities in natural outdoor environments. Being exposed to trees, wildlife, and parks can reduce stress, rejuvenate attention, increase motivation, and improve both physical and mental health by promoting exercise. The more time spent outdoors, the better. For instance, one 2014 study found that a week of camping outdoors can reset your body clock and return your natural sleep patterns. Even a single weekend can do the job, another study found, so better pack up that tent and camping chairs.

The psychological benefits of spending time outdoors, such as improved attention span and mental reinvigoration, are particularly attractive for education — and we don’t have to move schools into the woods to reap these benefits.

Swansea University researchers analyzed the learning outcomes for three primary schools in the south of Wales where classes were held in a natural environment for at least an hour a week.

“We found that the pupils felt a sense of freedom when outside the restricting walls of the classroom. They felt more able to express themselves and enjoyed being able to move about more too. They also said they felt more engaged and were more positive about the learning experience. We also heard many say that their well-being and memory were better, and teachers told us how it helped engage all types of learners,” Emily Marchant, a Ph.D. researcher in Medical Studies at Swansea University and lead author of the study, said in a statement.

Although they were initially skeptical of this pilot program, the teachers found that outdoor learning improved their job satisfaction and personal wellbeing. That’s quite important since all too often the focus of research on education is on the student, with teachers and educators receiving little attention.

“This is a really important finding given the current concerns around teacher retention rates. Overall, our findings highlight the potential of outdoor learning as a curriculum tool in improving school engagement and the health, wellbeing, and education outcomes of children,” Marchant added.

Another study, published in 2018 in the journal Frontiers in Psychology, reached similar conclusions, finding that the “nature effect” of outdoor learning made 9-10 year-olds more attentive and engaged with their schoolwork. Teachers could teach uninterrupted for almost twice as long as during a subsequent indoor lesson, the study found.

“We wanted to see if we could put the nature effect to work in a school setting,” says Kuo. “If you took a bunch of squirmy third-graders outdoors for lessons, would they show a benefit of having a lesson in nature, or would they just be bouncing off the walls afterward?” said Ming Kuo, a scientist at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

Some teachers may be reluctant at the notion of holding some classes outdoors, at least from time to time, as they might think the environment would overexcite the children and reduce concentration. But the scientific literature actually points to the contrary.

“We’re excited to discover a way to teach students and refresh their minds for the next lesson at the same time,” says Kuo. “Teachers can have their cake and eat it too.”

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