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Ten benefits of outdoor learning

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Introduction

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Boredom is a major problem in schools, and is a common by-product of the traditional schooling system, which affects children of all ages. Most students are expected to sit in chairs and pay attention for as many as eight hours per day – and that is even before taking homework into account. Considering these long hours, it’s no surprise that many students report feeling bogged down by drudgery.

A 2014 Indiana State University study found that nearly half of students feel bored every day, half of students report skipping school at least “once or twice,” and 20% consider dropping out entirely. Disengagement is one of education’s greatest challenges.

One of the problems is with the design of schools themselves, and the buildings, where rows, or sometimes semi-circles of desks, face a whiteboard. To counter this issue, a counter-movement, as evidenced by initiatives like Forest Schools, which is based on a Scandinavian idea, has grown-up, whereby learning is moved out of the classroom and into an outdoor environment.

The relationship between outdoor learning and motivation was notably documented by researchers Julie Athman and Martha Monroe. In a 2004 study comparing 400 students in environment-based education programmes with students learning in traditional classrooms, the authors determined that environment-based education significantly raised motivation levels. The results of this study provide evidence of environment-based education’s ability to improve high school students’ achievement and motivation.

Here are ten benefits of outdoor learning.

1. Better Grades

A 2006 academic paper pointed to a 2000 study of schoolchildren in California as evidence that outdoor education improves kids’ grades. After studying on an outdoor curriculum basis, students from 11 schools scored higher than students of traditional systems in 72% of assessments in everything from maths and sciences to attendance.

The same year, author Dennis Eaton published in his book Cognitive and Affective Learning in Outdoor Education his finding that students’ cognitive abilities are better developed outside the classroom than in it.

2. Better Health

Getting up and moving around outside is not only good for children but necessary for their health, and the data backs it up. A study of 10- to 12-year-olds in Australia published in the International Journal of Obesity found outdoor education can be a key factor in avoiding childhood obesity. Too much indoor overstimulation has proven to have a number of harmful effects on children, including attention-deficit disorder, anxiety, depression, as well as obesity.

Children who participate in outdoor education tend to be more content than those who do not have the same opportunity. Nothing beats fresh air, exercise and excitement to turn even the most demure child into a happy, carefree one.

3. Better overall behaviour

Not only do students’ environmental behaviours improve with learning outside the classroom, but their ability to behave in an educational setting is improved as well. A 2008 study of Hollywood kindergartner children found that that the number of “on-task” students increased when the education moved outside. Other studies have found social adjustment, self-concept, and group cohesion — all potential pitfalls that result in poor classroom behaviour — improved through outdoor education. Even handling misbehaviour becomes easier for teachers when the education is out of the traditional classroom.

Outdoor classroom

4. Decreased stress levels

When serotonin is released in the brain, it produces feelings of safety and well-being. Activities that cause this release include listening to music and hearing the sounds of nature. The “pleasure chemical” dopamine is released by repetitive actions, so educational activities like monitoring a plant’s progress in a garden every day are great for stimulating dopamine’s production.

Given that studies have shown that stress can actually alter the size and shape of children’s brains, parents should be embracing opportunities to protect them in this area.

5. Enhanced attitudes to the environment

Learning outdoors entices children to develop respect for their environment and interest in the great outdoors. By instilling a respect for nature in children it helps to protect the environment for generations to come.

6. Enhanced communication skills

Many schools employ outdoor education specifically to target students’ communication skills. Outdoor education achieves the gains in communication by requiring students to work as teams to solve problems on expeditions. Students have to lead discussions, contribute their ideas by making their voices heard, give each other feedback, and resolve conflicts.

Whilst these activities can be done in a traditional setting, research suggests, the impact is more significant when the consequences are real.

7. Improved memory

A proven way to improve memory is to experience something new and unfamiliar, which releases dopamine into the hippocampus where memories are created. Classrooms where the lighting, temperature, layout and scenery are all the same every day have little to offer in this area.

But moving the class outside opens up a world of fresh stimuli for the senses that have great power to lock into the brain and secure whatever information was being learned at the time along with it.

Children camping

8. Increase in outdoor skills

Countless studies have shown that the most effective means of learning skills is by doing, and that learning outdoor activities can only come with experience – experience children get through outdoor education. Gardening, using a compass, navigating by the sun or moss on trees, building a fire, all of these are skills can be soaked-up in an open-air classroom.

9. Increased motivation

Children are naturally mobile and geared towards moving around. Studies have shown that they do have a natural enthusiasm for learning, which can be stifled by the classroom environment. Moreover, they have found that those children who learn outdoors carry their increased motivation levels across to traditional classroom-based learning when their outdoor education is finished.

Children that are fascinated by nature develop a strong will to participate and are able to concentrate for long periods of time.

10. Increased self-reliance

Experiential learning increases self-dependency. A willingness to challenge oneself physically and emotionally are integral elements of outdoor programmes, and pushing oneself in this way can enhance self-reliance, confidence, self-esteem and communication skills.

Conclusion

The learning that most people are used to takes place within a traditional bricks and mortar classroom, and is primarily theoretical, based on pictures and representations of the world, instead of the world itself. However, that tends to disengagement on the part of children, as they are robbed of the ability to touch, to smell, to walk, to climb and to experience. Outdoor learning looks to address these weaknesses and has been proven to have substantial tangible benefits when it comes to children’s education in terms of academic achievement, and improved motivation. However, it goes much further than that – it improves their mental and physical health, ameliorates behavioural issues, enhances communication skills and teaches self-reliance/

Given the boredom issues that plague classroom-based learning, an increasing focus on outdoor education would appear to offer a clear way forward – for teachers, parents, and children themselves.

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