Outdoor Learning: How a Pandemic Confirmed what Many of us Already Knew
For years, traditional education has minimized many of the challenges of teaching, says Erika Christakis, an early childhood educator and New York Times bestselling author of The Importance of Being Little: What Young Children Really Need From Grownups. She goes on to comment that during COVID-19 remote learning, parents saw the problems were just an extension of the problems with in-person learning prior to the pandemic: inattention to children’s developmental needs such as exercise, outdoor time, conversation, play, even sleep. (1)
In a pandemic, the most obvious demand should be for more outdoor learning. The reasons are clear: outdoor transmission of COVID‑19 is far less likely than indoor spread. Added to that there are years of accumulating evidence showing outdoor learning has many benefits, even without a pandemic. (2)
In a 2018 study, published in Frontiers in Psychology and discussed by The Greater Good Science Center at the University of California, Berkeley, where the number times a teacher stopped instruction to redirect or correct student behavior was tallied for 20 minute intervals, as well as ratings of classroom engagement, researchers found an increase in classroom engagement and that:
“redirects were less frequent after a lesson in nature—in fact, the number of redirects after a lesson in nature was roughly half (54%) that of redirects after a classroom lesson,” (3)
which indicates that the benefit of nature-based lessons over classroom-based lessons is not only statistically significant but practically meaningful, giving children more contact with nature during the school day can reap a host of additional benefits such as improved physical and mental health. (4)
“Kids can actually pay better attention in class after an outdoor lesson,” she says. “This is nice for teachers, because you don’t have to stop teaching and you still get that bump in attention.” (5)
The more powerful observation is that the teachers simply changed the location of their lesson to outdoors—something that can easily be accomplished without detracting from instruction time and can have notable effects on engaging students while reducing stress. (6)
Sue Waite, Associate Professor of Outdoor Learning at the University of Plymouth, and author of Children Learning Outside the Classroom: From Birth to Eleven, argues that policy-makers and practitioners need to enact policies to ensure that children are able to learn outside the classroom throughout their primary schooling. (7)
We have long held outdoor learning experiences as a key component of our curriculum, long before COVID-19. As the study showed, we even notice the increase in attention and engagement of the students after teachers take brief classroom walks when they sense a squirrelliness that needs calming. We also have picnic tables staged in several classroom size groupings, often take walking fieldtrips in Downtown Acworth or at Lake Allatoona, and even have outdoor activities as part of regular instruction.
Because of everything we were already doing, reopening face to face during a pandemic was not as difficult as it was for many schools. Yes, we had expenses and went above and beyond with precautions, especially indoors, but the outdoor classroom aspect was natural to us.
1. Christakis, Erika. “School Wasn’t So Great Before Covid, Either.” The Atlantic (November 10, 2020).
3. Kuo Ming, Browning Matthew H. E. M., Penner Milbert L. “Do Lessons in Nature Boost Subsequent Classroom Engagement? Refueling Students in Flight.” Frontiers in Psychology (January 2018, Vol 8)
5. Suttie, Jill. “The Surprising Benefits of Teaching a Class Outside.” The Greater Good Science Center, University of California, Berkeley (May 2018). 6. Ibid.
7. Waite, Sue. “Losing our way? The Downward Path for outdoor learning for children aged 2–11 years.” Journal of Adventure Education and Outdoor Learning (December 2010, Vol. 10, No. 2).