Throughout the United States education is facing a great challenge: how to systematically get kids outside for learning. This challenge is resurfacing after a few decades of being somewhat dormant with a strong new evidence base behind outdoor learning. The benefits have been clear for a while now. The question is: are we finally going to make it happen?
In 2017, a national study found that children under the age of 18 see many benefits to being outside. Interestingly, one of the most oft cited was the increased ability to think up new ideas. At a time when we need our students to develop curiosity, problem-solving, and critical thinking skills it might just be time to take notice of the benefits of learning outside. Today’s leaders find that children are saying loud and clear, they need both permission and opportunities to get out there and learn.
For a while now we have taken the approach that it is totally okay for our kids to be inside. But its time to change that mindset, especially in our schools.
Today, our national average of outdoor time for kids is 12–15 minutes per day. Couple that with the fact that our preschool aged children are lucky if they get one outdoor experience per day, and we have a situation. A situation that isn’t pretty but none the less has boundless solutions.
When we look at the research on learning the facts are clear.
- Children who play outdoors regularly are more curious, self-directed and likely to stay with a task longer.
- When children learn outdoors their engagement, retention, and overall academic performance improves.
- Children engage in deep learning when multiple senses are engaged, outdoor learning creates more authentic opportunities for positive sensory engagement.
- At a time when greater numbers of children suffer from anxiety, emotional stress, and increasing mental health issues time in the outdoors is an unquestionable benefit to their overall wellness and readiness to learn.
- Child-initiated learning can happen more frequently in outdoor spaces where impromptu questions and observations are more apt to occur.
- Outdoor learning experiences improve problem solving, critical thinking, and collaboration skills.
- On-task behavior (signifying cognitive engagement) improves when students receive instruction outside.
To better serve the needs of our kids to engage in outdoor learning, play, and nature-based experiences we have to elevate the issue of being outside as one of critical importance to the long-term health and well being of our kids.
This issue is a medical, educational, community, and family issue that needs to be addressed from all sides.
When it comes to schools, the positive impact of curated spaces that support outdoor learning is well documented. Today, there are nearly 500 certified outdoor classrooms in the United States. While certified outdoor classrooms are among the top tier of curated spaces, the movement to support outdoor classrooms is becoming a national conversation.
A conversation that could benefit from your engagement.
While the state where I call home only has 20 of those certified outdoor classrooms, nearly 100 schools had some form of participation in the 2019 Outdoor Classroom Day. We haven’t yet hit the tipping point where we are making a commitment and supporting more national efforts to get our kids outside for learning.
But the evidence is pretty clear that getting outside to learn directly supports many of today’s educational priorities.
As community members we can encourage outdoor learning by supporting partnerships between parks and local schools to curate everyday spaces for learning. As parents we can ask that our school leaders support outdoor learning and align budgets and teacher training to link current practice and research on learning (especially that research that links outdoor learning to overall achievement and whole-child development). As teachers we can get outside with our kids. Make it a priority to get outside for reading, take a brain-break nature walk, take the community circle to the playground, or ensure that kids have time outside (even when its chilly or hot). As educational leaders we can jump into events like the Outdoor Classroom Day and make the commit that our kids need today.
The evidence is there and really who would say, “child, I need you to NOT be outside.” Its just a matter of being intentional about the opportunity that exists right outside of our doors. The opportunity that tells teachers, parents, families, and kids that its time to get outside and learn.