Outdoor Spaces

6 Unique Benefits of Outdoor Learning

As technology continues to inundate our daily lives, we're spending more time than ever indoors and in front of a screen. Urban sprawl has also contributed to our increasingly indoor culture as traditionally outdoor recreational activities - such as soccer, zip lining and rock climbing - are brought indoors into controlled environments for both convenience and comfort. But as we spend less time outside, researchers and writers are increasingly extolling the benefits that the natural world has on our physical health, mental well-being and intellectual development. Others, like outdoor advocate Richard Louv, use the term "Nature Deficit Disorder" to caution against the negative effects of people who aren't connected with the outdoors. As the evidence mounts for the benefits of outdoor learning, educators are recognizing a need for more activities that allow students to actively explore the natural world.

Advocates for outdoor learning translate this need for the natural world to students' needs. Nature offers a rich variety of information to spark students' motivation to explore and discover. Active student discovery is essential for developing the ability to observe, evaluate and use the information that is available around them. Outdoor experiences also engage students physically, adding to their level of engagement with the information they are taking in. Some find support for outdoor experiences when they look to thriving education systems like Finland's, that support nature and play, especially in the younger years. With a greater emphasis on physical activity and without standardized tests, Finland's students outperform students in the United States in measures of academic performance. Others look to research such as a study out of Boston, where the fourth grade standardized math scores were significantly higher in schools with renovated school yards.

The unique benefits of outdoor learning

With its evergreen landscape and a constantly varying set of experiences to explore, outdoor classrooms offer students a unique opportunity for cognitive and physical development. Connectedness to the outdoors preserves the physical and mental well-being that is the springboard for making academic strides. More than just a refreshing substitute for indoor learning, outdoor learning comes with its own set of six benefits that can't be realized inside buildings:

1. Physical interactions in nature feed cognitive engagement

In outdoor classrooms, students are constantly interacting with their environment. Physical activity keeps students aware so they can move and pick up information within their surroundings. Navigating through nature is especially engaging because walking paths are often uneven, surfaces might change and visual markers like sticks might change position. As a result, students remain in-the-moment and cognitively alert. The mental energy needed to physically navigate the world is not lost on researchers who study the value of movement on cognitive growth. Physical activity in toddlers is related to the building of perceptual and mental abilities, including the development of language and memory. School-age children show academic outcomes with more physical activity. In a recent review of 50 studies, The Center for Disease Control found "a total of 251 associations between physical activity and academic performance, representing measures of academic achievement, academic behavior and cognitive skills and attitudes.". T he act of constant perception and action create connections in the brain that prepare students to tackle novel and complex challenges.

2. Variety in nature promotes nimble thinking

The outdoors is never the same twice, even in the most planned spaces. A frog on the path, a bird perched on a pole or the feel of dirt turned to mud in the rain constantly gives students something new to encounter. Shifting gravel on the path or withering leaves in the field create new tools and media to spark imagination and kindle creativity. This variety fosters sharp and adaptable senses, opening possibilities for more agile thinking.

3. The enormity of nature develops perception

The sheer vastness of nature facilitates cognitive development. Even when canopied in the woods, the expanse is much greater than even the largest of indoor learning environments. Eyes must acclimate to near and far objects, ears must locate sounds from all distances and directions and touch receptors must indicate good places to walk, stand and reach. With this sensory awareness, electrical patterns fire across the many regions of the brain responsible for intellectual growth.

4. Nature supplies health benefits

Immersion in nature promotes greater physical well-being and improved brain function. Better breathing is one of the immediate and most fundamental of benefits. Natural air circulation allows students take in breaths that are fresher and freer of pollutants. Grasses, tree, and brush augment this effect, raising oxygen levels for developing minds. Sunlight provides another health critical benefit, stimulating skin cells to create vitamin D which allows the immune system to function properly. Vitamin D is also linked to a number of other benefits, including bone health, cardiovascular health and insulin regulation.

5. Nature fosters psychological well-being

Connectedness to nature also ushers in tremendous mental health benefits, including increases in the natural production of serotonin, the mood elevating chemical that staves off depression. Lower levels of this chemical are linked to seasonal affective disorder, which occurs in some people when the amount of daylight decreases. The multisensory stimulation that students experience in nature also activate portions of the brain that are associated with positive psychological and emotional states.

6. Direct observations in nature connect students to the real world

When students are surrounded by the outdoors, they become first-hand witnesses to natural processes. Direct observation is the first step in becoming a "natural scientist"; students can watch, wonder and manipulate aspects of their experience to see what happens. Nurturing passionate learners will keep their flames of natural curiosity burning. Outdoor environments allow students to make curious observations, unfiltered by descriptions in textbooks or on the internet.

Louv, Richard. Last Child in the Woods. New York: Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill, 2008.

Hancock, LynNell. (2011). Why are Finland's Schools Successful?

Butler, Patrick. (2016). No grammar schools, lots of play: the secrets of Europe's top education system.

Lopez, Russ; Campbell, Richard; & Jennings, James. (2008). Research Brief: Schoolyard Improvements and Standardized Test Scores: An Ecological Analysis.

Leonard, Hayley & Hill, Elisabeth. (2015). Early motor skills may affect language development. http://theconversation.com/early-motor-skills-may-affect-language-development-42200

Adolph, Karen & Berger, Sarah. (2006). Motor Development. In Damon, W. & Lerner, R. (Series Eds.) & Kuhn, D. & Siegler, R.S. (Vol Eds.), Handbook of child psychology: Vol 2: Cognition, perception, and language (6th ed.) New York: Wiley, p. 161.

U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (2010). Association Between School-Based Physical Activity, Including Physical Education, and Academic Performance.

Ware, Megan (author) & Webberley, Helen (reviewer). (2016). Vitamin D: Health Benefits, Facts, and Research.

WebMD. (2002). Unraveling the Sun's Role in Depression.

WebMD. Seasonal Depression (Seasonal Affective Disorder).

Barger, Zach. Get Outside! 7 Scientifically-Backed Health Benefits of Being in Nature. https://thetrek.co/scientifically-supported-reasons-get-outside/

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