Can outdoor learning help hone your students’ learning?

outdoor learning

Nature deficit disorder‘ is a term coined by the renowned author of The Last Child in the Woods, Richard Louv. It espouses the idea that all human beings — especially children — need to spend time in nature in order to be physically and mentally healthy and happy.

Spending 90% of our time indoors, says Louv, is contributing to lesser focus and more stress. He makes clear the importance of nature for learning when he says,

We tend to block off many of our senses when we are staring at a screen. Nature time can literally bring us to our senses.

If you have the opportunity to spend time outside with your students, or even teach them a multitude of disciplines outside, these are a few reasons why this could be beneficial for both your students and yourself.

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The brain, stress, and nature

Our senses cannot learn when we are stressed, as found in research undertaken at the Ruhr-Universitaet-Bochum. “Previous research has already shown that stress can prevent the retrieval of memories. But now we have discovered that it also has a major effect on our perception and perceptual learning,” said one study author.

The culprit is (stress hormone) cortisol. When present at high levels, this hormone disrupts memory in the hippocampus and affects the plasticity of the brain’s sensory areas.

A study by academics at the University of California – Irvine showed that short term stress lasting for just a few hours can hamper brain-cell communication in the parts of the brain used for memory and learning. For this and many other reasons, experiences that reduce stress, such as spending time in nature, can help enhance the learning experience.

Read more: How learning shapes a student’s brain. Literally

One of the best things about ‘green time’ is that you don’t need very much of it to make a big difference to your physical and mental health. A 2020 study by researchers at Cornell University showed that just 10 minutes in a natural setting can help college students feel less stressed and more content.

The scientists stated that no matter how busy students are, they should find time every day (or at least a few times a week) to unwind and find an inner sense of calm in nature.

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Sitting and walking outside, said scientists, were equally beneficial in terms of stress reduction, but of course, if you really want to give your body and mind a boost, adding a bit of exercise or a mindfulness-based activity like yoga or meditation into the equation can certainly help.

Benefits of outdoor learning

Moving instruction outdoors, at least partially, for subjects that have some applicability outside of the classroom walls, can result in positive outcomes, especially for the learning process of students. Here are three ways outdoor learning can be beneficial for students:

Improved memory and wellbeing

A recent study by researchers at Swansea University has found that as little as 60 minutes weekly of outdoor learning has great benefits for children and teachers. The study was undertaken on children aged nine to 11.

The lead author of the study, Dr. E. Marchant, stated that young students felt a unique sense of freedom when learning in the Great Outdoors. They were more inclined to express themselves, they felt more positive about their learning experience, and they noticed improvements in their memory and wellbeing.

Read more: 4 Steps towards digital wellness for students

Teachers, meanwhile, noticed that outdoor time was engaging for all types of learners. Moreover, nature enhances physical and psychological health, aiding in everything from heart to brain health.

Willingness to learn

A study by researchers at the Technical University of Munich showed that outdoor classes can improve learning by enhancing motivation. The study, carried out on 300 students, involved indoor classes, science classes outside during ‘research week’, and a two-day research expedition involving experiments.

The authors found that outdoor learning significantly improved intrinsic motivation. “Outdoor dynamics, which provide a strong boost to more situational interest for science and engagement with the subject,” they stated.

Read more: How to motivate students for lifelong learning

Enhanced focus

A study published in the journal Frontiers showed that children become significantly more attentive and engaged with their schoolwork after enjoying an outdoor class. Teachers were able to teach for twice as long without interruptions, suggesting that outdoor time may be an affordable, fun way to improve student engagement.

The study was undertaken on third graders (nine to 10 years old) over a 10-week period. Their ‘outdoor classroom’ was a grassy area just outside the school, overlooking a forest area.

The teachers saw the experiment as very positive in terms of refreshing students’ minds for the next lessons. In this sense, nature can help reduce the sensation of ‘burnout’ that can occur when students are sitting down for various hours indoors.

Can outdoor learning help hone your students’ learning?

Many studies have shown that time spent outside can reduce stress and improve key aspects of learning — including memory. Just a few minutes outside can help students keep stress levels down.

However, if you can do so, why not organize a few outdoor study sessions? Subjects like science, mathematics, literature, and art can all benefit from outdoor inspiration and nature is a limitless canvass for students.

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