When COVID hit, the National COVID-19 Outdoor Learning Initiative was formed in May 2020. Its purpose was to motivate schools and districts to adopt outdoor learning.
Initially a solution for the pandemic’s distancing restrictions, the initiative is now advocating for outdoor learning as a long-term answer to the systemic inequalities within traditional academic settings.
What Is Outdoor Learning?
Outdoor learning refers to education that occurs outside of a classroom.
It originally began in the early 1900s in response to tuberculosis rates at the time, as children were particularly vulnerable to the illness. Despite this, Rhode Island doctors wanted children to continue receiving an education.
COVID-19 and Outdoor Learning
The National COVID-19 Outdoor Learning Initiative re-introduced the concept of outdoor learning, which has evidence-based support. Outdoor learning has also been praised by mental health experts, school officials, and educators.
What to Consider About Outdoor Learning
Studies show that outdoor learning can help students develop a variety of traits. These include the ability to complete tasks, the capacity to self-direct learning, and the ability to build connections with fellow students. These findings were particularly pronounced for students from ethnic minorities and low-income households
What Mental Health Experts Have to Say
According to mental health experts, the benefits of outdoor learning are robust. Rebecca Rolland, EdD, a faculty member at Harvard Medical School, notes its ability to provide children with concrete learning opportunities.
“Young children learn words for things they experience, such as colors, smells, and textures. This allows them to learn vocabulary in context, versus through a textbook,” says Dr. Rolland.
There are also significant emotional benefits of outdoor learning. Taish Malone, LPC, PhD, a counselor at Mindpath Health, states that serotonin levels rise when the body is exposed to fresh air.
Connects Children to Nature
It “connects children to nature and supports a caring disposition toward the environment and the plants and animals that share it with us,” Hoisington says.
Hoisington also says this can cement abstract concepts such as force and motion, by allowing students to view how objects slide differently on textured surfaces, ramps, and hills—features that don’t occur within the classroom.
Carolyn Hines, a director at the Aspen Country Day School, says that outdoor learning has tremendous implications for students.
Outdoor learning can also give children a chance to be “challenged in a nurturing environment,” Hines says. When students have a chance to work collaboratively with classmates and their teachers, they can build a strong sense of community and acquire traits like altruism. These skills can then be carried over into other parts of students’ lives, like at home with their families.
A Teacher’s Thoughts
Outdoor learning can facilitate a teacher’s workday, and can have noticeable impacts on a student’s behavior and ability to focus.
Janet Ecochardt, a certified elementary and special education teacher at Spruce Creek Elementary School in Port Orange, Florida, says this model allowed for more flexible seating. “As long as they are working,” she says, “I let my students find the best spot for themselves—at a picnic table, under a tree, in the grass.”
Being Outside Can Be Exciting and Stimulating
Working outside offers kids more choices in their decisions and can break up the monotony of sitting at the same desk the entire day.
Improved Focus and Behavior
Furthermore, Janet says that she noticed fewer distractions. Her special education students often require limited distractions. “Classrooms are typically rather noisy with a lot of visual stimulation (colorful posters, decorations, other people moving around, windows, doors, etc). A lot of that is eliminated outside. I found that my students were actually able to focus a lot better outdoors than in.”
Nature Promotes Relaxation
However, outdoor learning allows the kids to have more personal space by spreading out. “They also seem more relaxed,” Janet says. “I observed very few problem behaviors during our time outdoors.”