Outdoor Education and its Effect on Children, Teachers, and the School Community

There is a Chinese proverb that says, “traveling thousands of miles is better than reading thousands of books.” Essentially, this famous saying means that individuals learn more from traveling and being outdoors as opposed to reading materials from books indoors. While being outside, students are able to experience things themselves, learn more by taking advantage of their learning space, and interact with their surroundings to fully experience the educational objectives. Inspired by this famous proverb, I began paying more attention to the how nature is being included in different educational settings. Today, many elementary schools, high schools, and even universities are incorporating outdoor learning as part of their curriculum. Schools across the nation are adapting to this new type of learning style in hopes of seeing a positive effect on students’ learning behaviors. Based on current research, it seems that learning outdoors can really produce positive behavioral changes in students, parents, and community leaders. 

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School instructors leading students to learn in outdoor classrooms at a youth center © Stephanie Jacobs 2010

As someone possessing a dual-citizenship, I was immensely fortunate to have a five-year long study abroad experience in Hong Kong. The first thing I noticed there was a higher emphasis on outdoor education. Teachers were always actively looking for new local parks for their students to explore and new materials they could observe as a class. These elementary school experiences resonated with me the most out of all that I have learned overseas.

Fieldtrips such as these are more memorable to us compared to other learning experiences because of our sensory awareness of our surroundings. Individuals tend to remember concepts for a longer amount of time after learning them outdoors because we generally associate this new knowledge with the in-depth and meaningful experience that activities such as fieldtrips provide (Mahar, 2011). I encountered this firsthand because the focus on outdoor education declined as I continued my high school and college studies in the United States. Students here are not engaged with nature nearly as much as most other students around the globe, and there are a lot of different factors that contribute to this issue.

Outdoor Education
Outdoor learning not only benefit students, but it also benefits teachers and the community as well © Krystle Crossman 2016

As technology is becoming more advanced, “the average American child spends five to eight hours a day in front of a digital screen, often at the expense of unstructured play in nature” (O’Mara 2018). Socioeconomic and geographical factors influence opportunity for nature play as well. Because of pressures of work and lack of time, most parents do not have the time to take their children outdoors. Parents worry that allowing children to stay outdoors for extended periods of time can pose a risk to their child’s safety, and so the children remain indoors. Metropolitan neighborhoods also have a shortage of child-friendly parks and green areas in general. Because of issues like these, it becomes the teacher’s responsibility to debunk negative stigma about children spending time in nature and learning outdoors. Thankfully, teachers in the United States are currently being encouraged to add more outdoor learning opportunities to their curriculum. Large amounts of research data have indicated that outdoor education positively challenges children both intellectually and emotionally (Duncan et al., 1988).

One of the strongest appeals to outdoor education is its macroscopic focus on the learning curriculum. Outdoor education is generally facilitated through the laissez-faire leadership style. Students are encouraged to work on their own projects. The assignment expectations are more hands-off too. Teachers give a lot of autonomy to the students to work independently and diligently in order to accomplish their set goals, targets, and deadlines. In comparison, indoor education has been suggested to be destructive and potentially harmful in the long run, since it forcefully changes students’ working styles (Oberbillig et al., 2014). There is no one cookie-cutter way of learning and placing students in a confined learning environment with strict guidelines can interfere negatively with the classroom enjoyment and productivity.

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Children learning about wildlife in groups ©Kit Harrington 2015

In fact, a recent research article published in Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment addressed the difference in classroom engagement between classes taught indoors and outdoors. Dr. Ming Kuo and Dr. Matthew Browning from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign conducted a study to examine whether and how lessons in nature boost classroom engagement (2018). They hypothesized that “lessons in nature have positive – not negative – effects on subsequent classroom engagement” (2018, pp.1). The total study group had 100 indoor and outdoor lesson plans for the first five weeks. As predicted, “in 48 out of 100 paired comparisons, the nature lesson was a full standard deviation better than its classroom counterpart; in 20 of the 48, the nature lesson was over two standard deviations better” (Kuo & Browning, 2018). Teachers also discovered that students were able to engage in future lessons after learning in nature much better than after learning in an indoor classroom. Research has shown that physical activity might play a part in this boost of classroom engagement (Mahar, 2011). Spending sufficient time moving around in nature can rejuvenate both the teacher’s and student’s attention span and interest level.

Like any other research project, there are some limitations to this study as well. To eliminate any other factors that might affect classroom engagement, the researchers should have asked the same teachers to teach the same topics with the same instructional approach for the most accurate data results. Instead, they gave out different lesson plans, and tested different education styles with different sets of instructors and students. Nevertheless, this research adds to the growing body of research that points towards the obvious benefits of learning outdoors.

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Outdoor learning class in progress ©First Things First 2018

 

Types of Outdoor Education

Historically, there have been two types of outdoor education. These two types of education include outdoor pursuits and environmental education. Outdoor pursuits refer to the “skill-based approach to outdoor activities such as canoeing, climbing, camping, and orienteering” (Smith, 1987). This type of outdoor education is similar to fieldtrips that students participate in, which provides them with in-depth practical experience. Supporters of outdoor pursuits argue that learning outdoors can promote personal and social growth, as well as autonomy. According to scientists, one secret to student satisfaction is sense of autonomy in the activities they are involved in (Huff & Lash, 2017). Generally speaking, disengaged students are the ones who are more likely to be absent and are less productive in school. When students feel that their contributions and ideas matter, then they are more likely to put forth the effort to contribute.

Hands-On-Nature Anarchy Zone Ithaca Children's Garden
Hands-On-Nature Anarchy Zone for independent learning ©Ithaca Children’s Garden 2018

The other type of outdoor education known as environmental education uses a similar learning approach but with a different area of focus. Environmental education, also known as outdoor education, elevates educational objectives better than indoor education. This is largely because learning outdoor allows students to hold themselves accountable for their own work. The curriculum for working outside cuts back on management and improves efficiency with the coursework too. Teachers are also impacted positively. Adopting this style of learning means that teachers and professors are able to lead the class in “more engaging ways after a bit of walking, a bit of a breather and change in scenery, [which] can reduce their stress levels” (Kuo & Browning, 2018, pp.11). Another research study discovered that outdoor environmental education has a positive impact on teachers’ behavior as well. North Carolina State University handed out a survey with teacher interview data about their impressions of outdoor programs and the experiences of their students. The teachers’ responses indicated that outdoor education was a more effective method for instruction, especially when it came to science classes (Moore et al., 2016). Outdoor education not only has a positive effect on children, but on teachers and the school community as well.

Teacher students looking macroinvertebrate
Students study macro-invertebrates found in nature © Hagerty Ryan 2016

The implementation of outdoor learning has skyrocketed in the past few decades. Researchers and scholars have identified plenty of benefits to outdoor education, specifically for outdoor science lessons. A study conducted at the North Carolina State University discovered that “teachers’ enthusiasm about the students’ excitement for outdoor lessons and learning about science were apparent during the field observations and were common themes in their reflection papers as well as their verbal feedback (Carrier, 2009). Generally, outdoor education is believed to promote personal and social development of students by increasing their knowledge and understanding of their self-identity, as well their role as a member of the community. Learning outdoors not only benefits children, but it also aids teachers in decreasing the level of stress and increasing job satisfaction. According to the school principal of the Natural Connections Project, a 4-year outdoor demonstration funded project, working outdoors creates engagement, heightens interest, and fosters better participation (Carlill, 2011). Higher engagement from students, in turn, empower and motivate teachers to plan more creative curricula.

Currently, there are several environmental education programs that are taking place in elementary schools. One example is the Lenoir County summer programming in North Carolina. This program explicitly highlights partnerships between schools and informal science organizations. A Time for Science Nature and Learning Center partnered with the Lenoir County School system for a six-week Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) camp that allows public school students to do many fun outdoor learning activities. The North Carolina Arboretum in Ashville is also organizing a similar outdoor learning program. Their initiative for young children is called Project EXPLORE (Experiences Promoting Learning Outdoors for Research and Education). This program reached over 98 teachers in 22 countries and more than 4500 students over the past three years (Duncan, Beck, Granum 1988). Teachers have their students to do weekly field observations on activities such as a “Tree Phenology Project”, a “Squirrel Population Density Project”, or a “Bird Population Occurrence Project”. These types of outdoor learnings include many discussions and team bonding activities. Thermo Fisher Scientific and many other science facilities have shown their belief in this by generously providing grants for schools to fund these successful initiatives.

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Children learn imaginative play, science, and exploration at a school fairy garden ©Kit Harrington 2018

 

Additionally, there are college and university sponsored nature-based programs that serve students and teachers as well. MYLES offer a variety of field science expeditions for high school students in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park (GSMNP) and Mt. Mitchell. Similarly, Montreal College highly advocates for student development through outdoor education. They provide a field based intensive environmental training and research program for high school students across the state of North Carolina into different outdoor programs. High school students in the program can experience studying a variety of ecosystems and collecting scientific data as they learn more about nature. The program’s mission is to “expand on high school students’ interest in science and science related careers through living, studying, and hiking in the natural world” (MYLES of Science, 2019). Students work closely with professional scientists and science faculty in outdoor research.

These program shows that using outdoor resources as ways to learn fundamental STEM concepts is very effective. Programs such as these have been found to have not just terrific academic outcomes, but they help to properly cultivate strong civic attitudes and behaviors among children as well. Outdoor education also enhances the important role that students play in the community. These programs are great ways to build a foundation for the next generations to learn through taking initiative.

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Outdoor education is the most effective when learning STEM related materials ©Gary Chancey USDA 2017

All in all, outdoor education has a positive effect on children, teachers, and school communities. It is apparent that outdoor education allows many populations to grow dynamically. Students are able to develop a stronger sense of self, confidence, problem solving skills, as well as decision making skills. All these transferrable skills are not only beneficial to learning new material in class, but also readily prepare students to learn outside of school. Teachers are more engaged with the children when teaching outdoors, which yields a higher job satisfaction. All the advantages of an outdoor learning curriculum create a strong sense of community and belonging that develops a safe space for everyone. The joy of outdoor learning is much more rewarding than learning through textbooks. In the future, outdoor education should continue to be encouraged in all curricula for more efficient and productive learning.

For further reading:

  • Carlill, E. (2011, July). Natural Connections Demonstration Project. Retrieved February 9, 2019, from Learning Outside the Classroom website: https://learningoutsidetheclassroomblog.org/history/
  • Carrier, S. (2009). The Effects of Outdoor Science Lessons with Elementary School Students on Preservice Teachers’ Self-Efficacy. Journal of Elementary Science Education,21(2), 35-48. Retrieved from http://www.jstor.org/stable/43155850
  • Duncan, K., Beck, D., & Granum, R. (1988). Project Explore: An Activity-Based Counseling Group. The School Counselor,35(3), 215-219. Retrieved from http://www.jstor.org/stable/23900902
  • Huff Sisson, J., & Lash, M. (2017). Outdoor Learning Experiences Connecting Children to Nature: Perspectives from Australia and the United States. YC Young Children,72(4), 8-16. Retrieved from https://www.jstor.org/stable/90013699
  • Kuo, Ming, et al. “Do Lessons in Nature Boost Subsequent Classroom Engagement? Refueling Students in Flight.” Frontiers, Frontiers, 12 Dec. 2017, http://www.frontiersin.org/articles/10.3389/fpsyg.2017.02253/full.
  • Mahar, M. T. (2011). Impact of short bouts of physical activity on attention-to-task in elementary school children.  Med.52, S60–S64. doi: 10.1016/j.ypmed.2011.01.026
  • Moore, A., Lynn, K., and Thomas, A. K. (2016). Engaging students in science through a nature hike: a case of two students with ADHD.  J. Undergrad. Res.13, 73–80.
  • MYLES of Science. (2019). Retrieved February 18, 2019, from https://www.montreat.edu/about/event-services/myles/
  • Oberbillig, D., Randle, D., Middendorf, G., & Cardelús, C. (2014). Outdoor learning in formal ecological education: Looking to the future. Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment,12(7), 419-420. Retrieved from http://www.jstor.org/stable/43187839
  • O’Mara, Collin. “Kids Do Not Spend Nearly Enough Time Outside. Here’s How (and Why) to Change That.” The Washington Post, WP Company, 29 May 2018, washingtonpost.com/news/parenting/wp/2018/05/30/kids-dont-spend-nearly-
  • Smith, P. (1987). Outdoor Education and its Educational Objectives. Geography,72(3), 209-216. Retrieved from http://www.jstor.org/stable/40571620
  • Van Deman, B. (1974). With Feeling Comes Understanding: Sensory Awareness of the Environment. Science and Children,12(2), 13-13. Retrieved from http://www.jstor.org/stable/43147565
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Learning in nature, a hands-on approach ©GerhardHealer 2019

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