Why venturing outside is more important than ever.
A literature review and summary by Alex Alves,
Outdoor Learning Made Easy.
It’s raining… again. Your previous motivation to venture outside is descending faster than the raindrops against your window. The security and familiarity of the cosy ‘box’ of a room you’re standing in seems very appealing, and the ease of all educational information or entertainment at the touch of a button or swipe of a screen, is a much easier option. You put your coat back down and sigh… “Well I did take them outside last week. Maybe tomorrow…”
So why is a time like now more important than ever to persevere, and venture into new territory outdoors on a regular basis? You don’t have to look too hard to find reams of publicity stating the need for us all to venture outside much more often than the vast majority of us currently do. That’s all well and good, but living in England, we all know too well that the unpredictability of the weather can halt even the most enthusiastic.
But what if every time things didn’t go to plan we always gave up? What if we only ever experienced the outdoor world when the rain stopped falling and the wind stopped blowing? Let’s face it, in England, this would mean we would be cooped up in enclosed rooms for the majority of our lives.
Alarmingly, children nowadays have much less opportunity to explore the outdoors than previous generations and this is not just in England: 70 percent of today’s mothers in the U.S. recalled playing outdoors every day as children, but only 26 percent of them say their kids play outside daily, (Worrall, 2017). Many factors have contributed to this, most notably busier lifestyles and an increased perception of risk in society. Surely, spending hours staring at screens is a more dangerous pastime than any perilous activities outside, Knapton (2016). Often, when children do play outside, it is to take part in highly structured sporting activities. Seldom do they get the chance to explore and connect with their outside environment and nature in an unstructured or investigative way.
Much research indicates that this lack of connection to the outside world is hampering children’s social skills as well as stifling their long-term physical, emotional development and wellbeing. Recent studies into children’s mental health have documented an increase in attention disorders and depression, and children are more likely to be medicated for those problems than at any time in human history, (R Shore, 2017). It is interesting to note that Yoo (2017), adds that children diagnosed with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder experience a reduction of symptoms after exposure to the outdoors. It seems we are stuck in a vicious cycle of cause and effect, when there is a simple solution: facilitate more opportunities for play and learning outside in the first place. In addition, the recent rise of obesity, rickets and asthma, the decline in cardio-respiratory fitness, and even online bullying appear to be exacerbated by the lack access to nature, (Monbiot, 2012). Moreover, the number of children with myopia – blurred vision at long distances – has doubled in 50 years, (Ingham, 2017). Today’s technological world has caused youngsters to spend an average of six-and-a-half hours a day in front of screens causing many children to be at risk of becoming short-sighted.
Today, there are more than 500 studies into the links of nature and well-being; their conclusions all spectacularly well-aligned. Shore (2017), writes that all humans are innately attracted to nature — a term known as biophilia — and that we need experiences in nature for our psychological, physical and spiritual heath and well-being. Nelson (2017) adds that nature is an under-recognised healer, offering multiple health benefits, from allergy reductions to increases in self-esteem and mental wellbeing. Friedman and Lorier (2016) continue the argument to give 11 benefits of being outside including: improved short term memory; restored mental energy; stress relief; reduced inflammation; better vision; improved concentration; sharper thinking and creativity; possible anti-cancer effects; immune system boost; improved mental health; and reduced risk of early death. Interestingly Cobb (1994), concludes that contact with nature stimulates creativity. Cobb reviewed the biographies of 300 “geniuses”, and revealed a common theme that they all had intense experiences of the natural world in their middle ages of childhood (between 5 and 12 years of age). The benefits are not just felt by children: Webb, (2017) points out how ‘outdoor families’ are happier, healthier and actually get along better.
Worryingly, running parallel with this increasing literature trail depicting the need for us all to spend more time outdoors, is a society which is becoming less knowledgeable about UK wildlife, an ever decreasing amount of green space, and a seemingly lack of care about this downward trend.
It has become known that most who fight for nature are people who spent their childhoods immersed in it. Without a connection with the outside world as a child, people will not devote time to protect it as an adult. Louv (2005) documents that the remarkable collapse of children’s engagement with nature is even faster than the collapse of the natural world itself. Young people’s opportunities to experience wilderness – and the outdoors in general – are being restricted, says Travelog, (2006). Worryingly, alongside this lack of connection with nature is the loss of nature itself. The UK has lost 20% of its breeding birds since 1966, (Monbiot 2012) not to mention the trees dying from disease. The young people we might have expected to lead the protection of nature, have less and less to do with it and so often have little knowledge or care.
With these points in mind, it becomes evermore important that schools, other child-care establishments, and families themselves, do not overlook the opportunities that facilitating all types of outdoor learning, including forest school, can provide to break this cycle. With all this research into the benefits of taking learning outdoors, why do more schools or families not venture outside? The Natural Connections Demonstration Project (2016), found that a lack of confidence can be a big issue. Therefore, by running training courses for adults, and providing schools and child-care establishments with effective skills and knowledge, this could be a huge turning point in this problematic cycle. Spreading the skills, knowledge and enthusiasm in the outdoor world is a key driver for the future.
In Scandanavia, Learning Outside is a major part of childhood, and academic achievement seems to be blooming as a result. Environmental activities outside are embedded within teaching subjects and curriculums in cross-curricular ways. For example, measuring and calculating the volume of trees in mathematics, writing poems in and about nature when teaching languages or visiting historically significant places or buildings in history education, (Bentsen, 2013). England’s education falls way behind Scandanavia, and even Wales and Scotland in terms of Outdoor Learning. The policy framework for outdoor learning is well established within Scotland’s Curriculum for Excellence and Learning for Sustainability is a core part of the General Teaching Council for Scotland’s (GTCS) Professional Standards. Outdoor Learning is cited as one of the most significant policy developments in Scottish education over the last 10 years, (Scottish natural Heritage, 2017). In today’s world, on leaving full time education, one must be creative, critical and socially skilled. However, the English education system often requires children to behave like machines, sitting still and silently at desks, being fed facts and figures that have little meaning to them.
In England, the Natural Connections Demonstration Project findings state that 95% of schools who took part in everyday outdoor lessons as part of a research project, reported pupils enjoyed lessons more, and 92% reported that their pupils engaged better with learning. In addition, even in the relatively short time frame of the project, nearly 57% of schools reported a positive impact on attainment that they felt was attributable to outdoor learning. Much higher percentages of teachers reported positive impacts on the other areas such as a child’s engagement and their motivation to learn, commenting that these underpinned academic performance. Research published by Natural England in 2016 found school students engaged in learning in natural environments have been found to have higher achievement (in comparison to their peers or projected attainment) in reading, mathematics, science and social studies, exhibiting enhanced progress in Physical Education and drama, and a greater motivation for studying science, (Scottish natural Heritage, 2017). Moreover, a study of 900 elementary schools in Massachusetts found that children attending school with natural green play areas do better on standardised tests than kids in schools without access to nature, even when they controlled for socio-economic factors, (Shore, 2017).
Nevertheless, failure of the English education system to yet embed such Outdoor Learning provisions and training into its policies across its curricula is still proving to limit provision. Children come into school bursting with energy and enthusiasm, often to be told to sit still and be quiet. Lessons can often be predictable and ‘safe,’ and children are often tested the moment they set foot inside. As early as primary school there are pupils who lose the urge to learn, and approximately one third of these students have lost the desire to go to school at the end of secondary school, (Bertsen, 2013).
Moreover, typical early childhood indoor classrooms can often be quite overstimulating with shelves filled with books and resources, key-words and charts across the walls, electronic devices on hand, and boards plastered with vibrant colours and shapes. Taking learning outside can often help children to relax through more natural colours and objects which gives a calming feeling in an over stimulated world.
At present, if outdoor learning is embedded in a school’s curriculum in England, it is largely because a particular teacher in an establishment recognises the value of it. Moreover, many establishments still lack the drive or ability to provide it on a regular daily or even weekly basis and do not have it embedded into their routines. Outdoor learning is proven to have a positive impact on children’s development but it needs to be formally adopted, (Kinver, 2016) and occur on a regular basis. Although growing research supports outdoor learning (in both formal and informal contexts), and has greatly increased the awareness of its needs in schools; unfortunately it is likely to remain on the margins of many educational establishments until the benefits are fully recognised by policymakers and reflected in policies and curriculums throughout English Schools. Schools are under increasing pressure to deliver results, and have increasing constraints on time, finance and other resources. If Outdoor Learning, in its many varied concepts, were to be embedded within school policies and curricula, it would give that extra reassurance to all teachers that this is something justifiable to do. In the meantime, there is an ever-increasing need for more schools and establishments to be creative and innovative educators; to think outside of the box and have the confidence and skills to link outdoor activities to learning outcomes. This would allow various avenues of Outdoor Learning to become part of their current curriculum and working practise, so there is no need to find extra time or justification. Schools, if open to ideas, can construct different forms of outdoor learning styles that will meet their teaching aims and objectives.
The surprises a young learner discovers outdoors can promote problem-solving skills, scientific and mathematical exploration, and language and pre-literacy skills, (Hampshire 2017). Both Forest school practise and Outdoor Learning facilitate enquiry-based learning and higher order thinking skills. Learning is related to real life concepts and all five senses are engaged and inquisitive. Louv (2005) reports, “I hear the same story from teachers everywhere I go, that the biggest troublemaker in the classroom becomes a leader when you get them into the woods, not just better-behaved, but a leader,” Louv continues: “If the troublemaker becomes the leader when they get outside, what are we doing to these kids, these potential leaders?” Think about this in the context of your setting: do you facilitate the needs of the learner by taking them outdoors on a regular basis to grow their skills? Or do you keep them inside and demand they conform to the classroom rules, quashing both your own patience and the child’s potential?
In addition, If we can spread the knowledge of the proven benefits, for example, through training networks and information blogs such as on this website, we can open up the possibilities of play and learning outside and the associated health benefits to families. We can turn the cycle of mental health and society issues on its head. We can install motivation and inspiration whilst decreasing stress and anxiety. Natural spaces encourage fantasy and roleplay, reasoning and observation. Children can become problem solvers and thinkers whilst reaping the health benefits of the outdoors. If more families ventured outside, maybe this would help with family bonds and decrease stress levels in parents whilst bringing back smiles and enthusiasm to children.
So pick that coat back up, and venture outside of your cosy ‘box.’ Fight those voices which, are telling you to stay inside; turn off the screens and walk away from the textbooks, magazines, desks and sofas. Step outside. Reconnect with nature. Enlighten your senses and breathe in the fresh air. Go investigate the environment around you and enjoy the sense of self-worth and resilience that comes from persevering and exploring beyond the norm. Your health and the health of the planet will thank you for it.
Alex Alves, Outdoor Learning Made Easy.
“If you always do what you’ve always done, you’ll always get what you always got and you’ll always feel what you always felt.” Henry Ford.
Outdoor Learning Made Easy provides resources, courses and training for teachers, leaders and parents in Outdoors and Forest School. Scroll through our website for more information.
Bibliography & Relevant Further Reading
Bentsen, P. 2013. Udeskole in Scandinavia: Teaching and Learning in Natural Places.
Burt, J. 2016. Busting the Myths on Outdoor Learning in Schools.
Cobb, E. 1994. Ecology of imagination in childhood.
Friedman, L & Loria, K. 2016. 11 Scientific reasons you should be spending more time outside.
Hampshire, K. 2017. The benefits of nature based learning.
Ingham, T. 2017. Children should ditch screens and play outside to protect vision.
Kinver, M. 2016. Outdoor Learning boots children’s development.
Knapton, S. 2016. Screen time more dangerous than swallows and Amazons. The telegraph.
Louv, R. 2005. Last child in the Woods.
Monbiot, G. 2012. If children lose contact with nature they won’t fight for it.
Monbiot, G. 2017. In the age of robots, schools are teaching children to become redundant. The Guardian.
Morris, N. 2003. Health, Well-Being and Open Space, Literature Review.
Natural England. 2016. The Natural Connections Demonstration Project, 2012-2016: Final Report.
Nelsen, A. 2017. Access to nature reduces depression and obesity.
Travelog, P. 2006. Wild Adventure Space for Young People, Literature Review.
Scottish Natural Heritage. 2017. The great outdoors- Young people, outdoor learning and the 2020 challenge for Scotland’s biodiversity.
Shore, R. 2017. Kids need access to nature for mental health.
Yoo, S. 2017. Nature & health: Spending more time in nature can boost body and mind. Oregon Metro.
Webb, A. 2017. 4 parenting lessons research taught us in 2016. Parentco.
Worrall, S. 2017. We are wired to be outside. National geographic.