With the 21st Century working environment requiring people to have a deeper sense of not only their surroundings, but also of themselves, outdoor education is growing in popularity. Let’s take a brief look at what it means to take the classroom outside and how this could benefit the learning process.
What is outdoor education?
Outdoor education refers to learning that is based on experiencing, exploring, engaging with, and connecting to a natural environment. Activities might be organised in a way that supplements a traditional, didactic curriculum, or they may be developed in support of a more alternative learning stream, like that of a green school. Outdoor education is also referred to as environmental education, conservation education, outdoor recreation or outdoor learning.
Why outdoor education is important
There have been a range of studies focusing on the potential value of learning outside. The diversity of sensory elements in nature offers countless opportunities to enrich the development of the health and wellbeing of children. One particular exploration of the benefits of outdoor education divided these up into four useful categories. These can help us see the richness of the experience, which extends well beyond children receiving a healthy and necessary dose of sunshine.
Relating to knowledge, understanding, and academic outcomes, the cognitive plus-points of outdoor learning are great. Simply spending time in a greener space, has shown to grow children’s attention span, allowing for a more effective absorption of new information and an increased eagerness to learn. With the outdoors offering a rich spectrum of smells, senses and experiences, brain function and development are stimulated in interesting ways.
Not only this, but nature can simultaneously reduce stress, restore concentration and improve immune function, all aspects which are key for learning.
This category pertains to attitudes, beliefs, feelings, and self-perception. In today’s climate, it is becoming increasingly important for humans to have a good sense of who they are and how they relate to their surroundings. The shifting nature of society and its functioning requires people to be adaptable, something that is easier to do when you have a greater sense of self. Children who spend more time outside tend to be less afraid of risk taking and are more enthusiastic about exploring a new environment. They are able to grow their self-confidence and awareness through discovering and understanding their likes, dislikes, strengths and weaknesses. Learning in natural spaces offers the freedom of play and interactive learning – running, jumping, climbing, which are fundamental to inspiring this personal growth. Being taught outside offers children the opportunity to view things from different perspectives, ultimately growing in their overall understanding of the world and its intricacies.
Beyond understanding oneself, it is also important to be able to communicate with others. Outdoor activities offer plenty of opportunities to develop communication skills through teamwork, cooperation and learning to take turns. Engaging in a game or looking for something in nature helps children develop joint goals, and provides the space for utilising different strengths for the various aspects of a task. Play becomes education, as children embody both the roles of teacher and learner, sharing their own knowledge and skills with others, and taking in what those around them have to contribute.
Physical activity is necessary for getting the blood pumping and brain neurons working effectively. Improved blood flow allows more oxygen to be sent to the brain, allowing it to be receptive to receiving and processing information. On an emotional level, learning to self-regulate is important for children to integrate successfully into society. Because green space is able to reduce overall stress levels, children who are regularly exposed to the outdoors are less prone to expressing violent or aggressive behaviour. Encouraging curiosity and an interest in learning new things can help lower feelings of fear and anxiety. In turn, the healing and comforting effects of outdoor learning fosters an appreciation of nature.
Learning takes place all the time. Every new experience is a chance to expand a child’s knowledge and skills, equipping them with the tools to become more self-aware as well as conscious of their surroundings. Not all children have equal access to a well-rounded education and it would be amazing to dedicate time and money to creating spaces that allow children to reach their full learning potential – and in a way that complements the South African school curriculum.