No doubt the first people to use a stone-age dwelling as a primitive schoolhouse thought themselves the originators of a magnificent breakthrough in education. ‘No more cave drawings for us!’ But in so doing, something was lost: the ability of children to touch, to smell, to walk, to climb, to experience. Learning became primarily theoretical, pictures and representations of the world instead of the world itself. We have only recently begun to see the beauty of educating kids outside the traditional classroom, whether in a garden in Kentucky, a forest in Wyoming, or on a mountaintop in Vermont. But as these 11 benefits show, it’s high time more schools got back to the way we were.
Here’s one that ought to make every educator snap to attention. 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 math and science to attendance. The same year, 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.
Anecdotally we all know getting up and moving around outside is not only good for kids 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. Author Richard Louv has coined the phrase “nature-deficit disorder” to describe the harmful effects on kids of too much indoor overstimulation, including attention-deficit disorder, anxiety, depression, and yes, obesity. As he puts it, “As young people spend less of their lives in natural surroundings, their senses narrow, physiologically and psychologically, and we deny them access to a fundamental part of their humanity.”
When serotonin is released in the brain, it produces feelings of safety and well-being, earning it the nickname “the happy hormone.” Activities that cause this release are listening to music, receiving a high-five, or (the relevant one to this discussion) hearing 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. With what we now know about the dangers of stress on children’s bodies, parents should be looking for every opportunity to protect them in this area.
Despite the bizarre conventional thinking that has begun to diagnose and treat ADHD in children as young as 3, kids are naturally mobile and geared toward moving around. A 2008 study of Hollywood kindergartners found “a significant amount” of the kids showed enhanced enthusiasm about learning, which the researchers cited as proof kids do want to learn, just perhaps not in the way they are usually required to do so. Moreover, they found that the positive effects on the students’ motivation levels carried over to traditional indoor learning after the outdoor learning had concluded.
In 1999, researchers Robin Mittelstaedt (Ohio), Laura Sanker, and Beth VanderVeer put 31 boys and 15 girls through a five-day “biodiversity” program. They found that even already-positive attitudes about nature were improved as a result of the activities. The study bolstered existing findings from as far back as 1977 that have shown an increase in knowledge causes changes in attitude, which in turn cause changes in behavior. Thus, a bonus benefit of the improved attitudes kids have toward the outdoors after learning outside is an increase in their environmental awareness and more responsible behavior.
Not only are kids’ environmental behaviors improved by learning outside the classroom, but their ability to behave in an educational setting is improved as well. The Hollywood elementary study found as much, as 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 behavior — improved through outdoor education. Even handling misbehavior becomes easier for teachers when the education is out of the traditional classroom. Louv says, ”I can’t tell you how many times teachers have told me that the troublemaker in their classroom becomes the leader in an outdoor setting.”
Many schools employ outdoor education specifically to target students’ communication skills, and as college students have been derided for years for paltry writing and speaking skills, this may bring outdoor learning into wider use. 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. Granted, these activities can be done in a traditional setting, but according to a 2006 study, the impact is more significant when the consequences are real.
Curtis in 1998, Hutchinson in 1999, Long in 2003, Wells in 2005: studies have shown time and again that the most effective means of learning skills is by doing. Martin, Cashel, Wagstaff, and Breunig definitively stated in their 2006 study that learning outdoor activities can only come with experience — experience kids get through outdoor education. These skills are really only limited to the instructor’s comfort level with risk. Gardening, using a compass, navigating by the sun or moss on trees, building a fire, all of these are skills kids soak up in open-air classrooms.
It would be impossible to definitely prove a change in self-reliance, but it makes sense that experiential learning would increase self-dependence, and the evidence seems to support it. In a 1983 study, Ronald Force of Saint Francis Academy and Charles Burdsal of Wichita State University in Kansas found boys with behavior problems seemed to become more self-reliant after participating in three two-week wilderness hikes. (Girls were not found to show any demonstrable improvement.) In 1995, researcher Jim Zuberbuhler stated in his article “Outdoors the Rules Are Different,” “A willingness to challenge oneself physically and emotionally are integral components of outdoor programs, because pushing oneself this way can enhance self-reliance, confidence, self-esteem, and communication skills.”
A unique form of education has sprung up uniting the ideas that a) education is most effective when paired with experience, and b) knowledge ought to be used to benefit others. Service learning is used all the way from kindergarteners to college students. For example, Florida elementary kids created disaster preparedness kits for their neighbors after learning about earthquakes. Pennsylvania middle-schoolers learned about nutrition then put on a health fair. The benefits of service learning to communities are self-evident and the projects are virtually limitless in their possibilities.
A proven way to improve recall is to experience something new and unfamiliar, which releases dopamine into the hippocampus where memories are created. Obviously, classrooms where day in and day out the lighting, temperature, layout, and scenery are always the same does not have much to offer in this area. But moving the class outside opens up a world of fresh stimuli for the senses that have an amazing power to lock into the brain and secure whatever information was being learned at the time along with it.