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10 benefits of outdoor learning
How can you help nurture an appreciation of the outdoors in children? Mike Crossley describes some of the positive outcomes of taking learning outside
With everyone having experienced the devastating impact a global pandemic can bring, increasing value has been placed on the freedom to spend time outside.
At a time where cases of anxiety and stress are on the rise, studies on the positive effect that nature and outdoor activities have on our mental health and wellbeing confirm this importance. Staff, pupils and of course, their families alike all reap the benefits when it comes to outdoor learning.
When talking about outdoor learning what often springs to mind are images of activities in natural areas. However, according to the Council of Learning Outside the Classroom it is ‘the use of places other than the classroom for teaching and learning’. Creativity, therefore, should be at the forefront in terms of purpose and place, to construct a form of outdoor learning that will meet certain teaching aims.
1. Enhances enjoyment and engagement
Children are more likely to remember detail when it’s presented in a fun and interactive way. Maths, arts, history, science, drama and music can all easily be taken outside to the school grounds. Examples include:
- pupils trying to find a 90-degree angle with a protractor in the school surroundings
- exploring the age of an oak tree
- planting seeds in old boots and watching and measuring growth with a ‘wellie boot flower trail’
- how weather affects water
- outdoor music concerts
- performing poetry in the open air
- a re-enactment of a historic event.
For other free ideas and resources, The Council for Outdoor Learning’s website offer an extensive list. Educational companies can be booked to visit and bring history to life, making learning more relevant and engaging. Educational trips to art exhibitions, theatres, and places of worship are other examples of outdoor learning.
Talking to your parents can often open a wide range of options for educational trips, either through their profession or workplace.
2. Not being cooped up all day
In outdoor Forest School areas the child’s space is contained but not constrained unlike a typical classroom. The natural environment provides a space that is free from over stimulation from busy, colourful display boards, noise and interactive and digital media.
While we think of a bright and busy classroom as being essentially welcoming, this can be overpowering to those with a heightened sensitivity. Consequently, offering outdoor surroundings that are known to be calming is beneficial and is proven to aid focus.
Some low-cost activities might be:
- listening and identifying birdsong,
- cooking or drinking outdoors, or simply eating lunch
- going barefoot on the grass.
3. Relaxes busy minds
Allowing time to let off steam and recharge before returning to the classroom is a simple but hugely effective way for everyone to recharge and take a breather. Simple matters such as playing outside at breaktimes, daily or weekly mindfulness walks, time outdoors to listen to music or simply chillout do not require much investment.
Looking after animals is another popular option where possible. The number of schools who have a ‘school therapy dog’ are on the increase, as are those where a form of animal management is on the curriculum.
4. Lowers anxiety
The more we allow learners to experience nature, the greater the benefits to both their academic performance and overall wellbeing, particularly if they recognise they will not be ‘tested’. There is simply an increase of calm and autonomy when given the freedom to overcome challenges outdoors.
Activities popular with younger children might be going on a bug hunt and identifying wildflowers. Additionally, creating nature areas within the school, maintaining school kitchen gardens and visiting local outdoor education centres and parks will all provide this benefit.
5. Aids physical health
Simply breathing in fresh air, going for a brisk walk, taking part in recreational or competitive outdoor sport or other physical activities all aid our general physical health and wellbeing.
Outside of school examples include:
- regular walking or cycling as a family
- joining a sports or swimming club
- dancing or running around in a local park.
6. Learner inspired hands-on experiences
Research shows that with learner led investigations, the information is better retained and leads to increased curiosity and motivation, with that clear connection between outdoor learning and focus.
Forest School promotes this approach, providing often open-ended opportunities for children to build on what they’ve previously learned. If children wish to build something, we may teach them to use tools, tie knots or build shelters etc but it’s up to the child to decide what their build will look like.
Designing a birdbox, a bee or bug hotel, planting wildflower seeds or painting nature can all be child-led activities. If the school has access to an outside classroom where children can take part in outdoor activities all year round, so much the better.
7. Instils life skills
Teamwork and problem-solving skills, developing communication skills and providing opportunities to express themselves are a further benefit.
Children who take part in Forest School activities all year round develop resilience to weather, challenges and risk. The need to communicate effectively and collaborate with others when trying to work out a challenge is key. Giving and accepting feedback, listening and making their voices heard all form part of this.
Children like nothing better than jumping in puddles and feeling the rain drops on their faces. Investing in a school set of wet weather gear is a minimum requirement or even better, add a boiler suit to the school uniform list which also helps ‘wet’ breaks to be less of an issue!
8. Develops resourcefulness and imagination
Through outdoor learning opportunities we can encourage children to take risks both physically, mentally, socially and emotionally. We must teach managed risk because, in today’s society where risks are often removed, children and society are becoming more risk-adverse, both physically and emotionally thus avoiding anything they are unsure about.
Embracing a growth mindset approach - 'I cannot do it YET!' - is important when building resourcefulness and self-confidence. Examples might include climbing, experiencing speed on a log swing and the use of tools.
9. Positive relationship with our natural world
Children who take part in outdoor learning activities develop a more empathetic relationship and connection with the world around them. They develop an awareness of:
- the changes in seasons
- differences in weather
- animal habitats
- effects of the weather, how this affects their bodies and minds and, in turn, how their decisions impact the environment.
10. Sense of freedom and gratitude
Children who may not be quite so academic often thrive in outdoor learning environments which are process based rather than goal based. There is no academic need to pass a test, jump through a hoop and frequently those perhaps seen as ‘disruptive’ within a classroom setting find that in outdoor learning activities there is a place they can thrive.
They may feel in a ‘good place’ outdoors and may even wish to express this in the form of a diary or journal. I have witnessed children subsequently expressing gratitude for animals, rainbows, cloud patterns in the sky and other aspects of nature.
Opportunities for children to enjoy outdoor environments appear to be diminishing for a variety of reasons including access, concerns over safety, and parental worries. While an increased focus on academic attainment can put pressure on schools to stay in the classroom, it is vital that outdoor learning activities form a key part of school curriculum.
Being outside often provides an environment where teachers can form a new perspective by seeing a child in a different light and perhaps understanding better how that child best operates so they can transfer that way of learning into the classroom.
If we are to nurture healthy balanced young minds for the future, using our natural surroundings as a resource and experiencing the buzz and better health that this can bring speaks for itself.
Last Updated:06 Jun 2022