Why teaching kids outside might help them thrive

Schools are turning to this method during the pandemic—and parents can, too.

On a recent sunny December morning, a group of kindergartners from Mangrove School of Sarasota gathered on log benches in a Florida forest to eat lunch. They sat under a wooden hut with a thatched roof, a replica of early-1800s Native American housing that’s part of a local museum exhibit built by Miccosukee tribe members. They’d spent their morning having imaginary snowball fights and pretending to trick-or-treat among the spooky leafless trees.

Their school, a private pre-K-8 school, normally held about 70 percent of instruction outside before the pandemic hit. But recently, the school shifted to being almost totally outdoors. “Parents say their kids come home happy and tired,” says Erin Melia, Mangrove’s director and 8th- and 9th- grade teacher.

Based on recommendations from the Centers for Disease Control and the American Academy of Pediatrics to use outdoor space as much as possible to help curb the spread of COVID-19, public and private schools across the United States are experimenting with outdoor education. Christy Merrick, director of the nonprofit Natural Start Alliance, which advocates for nature-based early childhood education, estimates that the number of outdoor school programs went from around 250 in 2017 to 600 in 2020.

“We’ve learned you can create any space outdoors and turn it into a ‘classroom,’” says Olivia Santos, principal of the Solar Preparatory School for Girls, a public school in Dallas that’s been holding more classes outdoors since COVID hit.

But it’s not just protection from COVID that kids are getting from outdoor school time. “For some reason, being outside increases their attention on the task they’re working on,” Santos says. “We notice that as they’re more interested, they’re better able to retain what they learn.” But even if kids don’t have access to schools doing outdoor education, parents can reap the benefits and foster extracurricular learning at home.

Academic benefits of outdoor learning

Outdoor learning isn’t new, of course. The first forest school—where students spend most of their time outdoors— is thought to have started in Denmark in the early 1950s; they’ve been popular in Germany since the ’60s and more recently in the United Kingdom. Private Montessori and Waldorf schools usually incorporate plenty of outdoor time into their curriculum, too.

Outdoor learning advocates says that learning in nature helps kids develop problem-solving and critical-thinking skills, resilience, an ability to work as a team, and an appreciation for nature. And a review of research from 2019 backs that up. Researchers in Denmark also concluded that learning in nature improves reading skills and increases motivation.

Proponents see outdoor learning as not simply moving traditional lessons outside but rather a more holistic approach to the way children are educated.

“We all learn by doing,” says Jeanne McCarty, CEO of Out Teach, a nonprofit that partners with schools to connect them with outdoor learning resources. “It’s not just teaching outdoors but using the outdoors to teach in real, hands-on ways. It makes education more relevant to students’ lives. When they experience something, it’s more meaningful to them.”

What schools have noticed

The pandemic was a “catalyst for innovation,” says Ann Byrne, deputy director of Crossway Montessori Forest School in Kensington, Maryland, which recently pivoted to outdoor learning. They’re already seeing benefits.

Because children have more elbow room, conflicts between them seemed to disappear, she says. Children labeled hyperactive are thriving outside, too. “All the physical activity requires large muscle work, which is calming to them,” Byrne says.

Emma Howell, a pre-K teacher at Guilford Central School, says one of her most behaviorally challenging students has become a respected leader since her school’s switch to outdoor learning. Since the fall, students at the small public school in southeastern Vermont are outside at least half the day.

“The outdoors is just a comfortable place for him. Outside, he comes up with all sorts of amazing ideas,” Howell says “The kids all follow his lead.”

Fears that kids won’t learn important fundamentals in outdoor programs appear unfounded, says Marie Robinson, superintendent and elementary principal of Katahdin Schools in Stacyville, Maine, which have increased the amount of time students spend outdoors since the pandemic began.

“Even with a shorter school day since the pandemic, we have seen academic gains that are not extremely different from any other school year,” she notes. “Immersing all of their senses is making a powerful difference in their learning.”

For example, when students discovered a beaver lodge near the school, they learned new vocabulary terms and about scientific observation in addition to wildlife biology and ecology studying the animals and their dams.

“The kids’ excitement and enthusiasm studying the beaver family propelled their learning,” she says.

Being outdoors has helped kids’ mental health, too. “The global pandemic has evoked so many different feelings many of us haven't experienced before,” Robinson says, “Some of the things we know about the outdoors is that it reduces stress and improves well-being. That alone is a good enough reason to do it.”

How parents can encourage outdoor learning at home

It definitely takes commitment to make outdoor learning work, especially in winter, Howell says.

“It can be uncomfortable if it’s 39 degrees and raining or windy,” she says. “So we’ve worked on strategies for keeping fingers warm. I put a half-gallon of boiling water in a cooler in the morning so kids can put their mittens in there while they eat.”

Another important step is to just get outside, Howell says. Don’t worry if kids aren't sure what to do with unstructured outdoor play at first, she advises. “It's not uncommon for kids to experience uncertainty and ‘boredom’ before they figure out how to engage.” Here are some ideas:

Build a nature toolkit. Arming kids with old household items can help them dig into the natural world—literally. “Loose parts, such as old pots and pans, spoons, shovels, and rakes can help inspire creativity,” Howell says.

Hunt for slugs. Holly Roger, co-founder of Wild Whatcom, a nonprofit advocating for outdoor education in Whatcom County in Washington State, suggests getting kids to poke around in damp environments to look for slugs and snails. Talk about what slugs like to eat, where they like to hang out, and observe how they move, she says. While you’re mucking around in the leaves, collect a few and make leaf rubbings back inside.

Look for nests. It’s winter and all the leaves are off the deciduous trees, so it's a good time to play, ‘Count the Nests,’” Roger says. “To differentiate between squirrel dreys and bird nests, note that squirrels need protection to stay warm and dry, so look for ‘leaf blobs’ that are as tall as they are wide.”

Hike and learn. Play games while on hikes to make them more motivating, Howell says. Hide treats on the trail for kids to find, play hide-and-seek along the way, or try “I Spy” to help with color or letter identification.

Find “sit spots.” Howell’s students have special spots—like a tree, rock, or stump—that they can visit for a couple of minutes each day or a couple of times a week. “It’s fun to notice change over time and really get to know one special spot,” she says.

Most important? Don’t give up.

“Don’t get discouraged if kids say, ‘But I don't want to go outside!’” Howell says. “Persist, even if it's only for a few minutes to start. They'll soon find all sorts of wonderful things to explore, as long as they have the time and space to do so.”

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