In Seattle, the preschoolers at Fiddleheads Forest School spend four hours a day exploring nature. At the All Friends Nature School in San Diego, children spend the mornings creating sand castles. And at Drumlin Farm Community Preschool, kids learn by exploring a real-life farm — they feed animals, grow food and take care of wildlife habitats.
Outdoor education is a growing trend mostly for preschools across the country, but some outlying schools are implementing it as part of the K-12 curriculum.
For instance, there’s a small town in Michigan where every day — snow, sleet or rain — the children go for a walk outside. Sometimes, if the weather is right, they will ski or snowshoe. What the teachers there say is most crucial, however, is that the kids get outside and into the fresh air before the day begins. Their mile-long activity is perhaps one reason so many students and teachers embrace the local school.
The little school in Big Bay, Michigan, and others around the country, may be on to something.
How Exploring Nature Encourages Education
Rather than spending time in a traditional classroom with books, videos and the internet as learning tools, some schools are creating “outdoor classrooms.” Outdoor education teaches children by exposing them to a direct experience — contact with nature. Demonstration models are abundant, from weather stations, renewable energy experiments and water flow systems, children learn science hands-on by playing outside.
Exploration of any kind expands the growing minds of children and makes them more prepared for learning throughout their educational experience. Perhaps that’s even more crucial in today’s world, where educators must compete with screens of all kinds to grab their students’ attention. But in addition, outdoor education reveals an organic sense of interdisciplinary studies since in nature, all life is dependent on each other.
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5 Ways Outdoor Education Benefits Children
Using nature as a tool for exploration teaches children about respect for the outdoors, for crucial wildlife habitats and for the delicate ties that bind every living thing.
Consider these five surprising things about outdoor education:
- Better Vision
According to the Journal of the American Medical Association, school-aged children who play outside were much less likely to suffer from near-sightedness, also called myopia.
An alarming number of children in the United States have myopia. Though the exact reason why is unclear, kids who play outside regularly have better vision than those who primarily play inside.
- Improved Social Skills
Bullying has become endemic in our school systems, and reports of bullying that lead to suicide often make the headlines. Though not an answer alone to this serious issue, some experts suggest that unstructured play while young helps children develop stronger social skills.
As explained by a school that engages in outdoor education, being outside allows kids to have enough freedom to explore some of these complex dynamics.
- Decreased Anxiety
Research has provided plenty of evidence that being physically active is a stress-reducer, and children are constantly moving when they are out exploring nature. But it looks like there may be more to it than just being outside.
Exposure to nature itself decreases anxiety in humans, which makes sense. Breathing is a natural way to remain calm, and trees are the main source that gives humanity the oxygen to breathe.
- Better Focus
The calm of the outdoors seems to improve focus in children. In fact, just 20 minutes outside can help kids with ADHD concentrate better. Once kids learn how to focus, it becomes a life-long skill that can aid their entire educational experience.
Focus isn’t something that’s easily taught, so when educators leverage something as accessible as time outside to help, it can transform a child’s life.
- More Vitamin D
Vitamin D is like a wonder drug — it boosts the immune system, promotes stronger bones, decreases the likelihood of some cancers and even lessens the risk of type 1 diabetes. Though there are some foods with vitamin D — salmon, egg yolks, mushrooms — none of them are vitamin-rich. It’s added to milk, too, but too much milk isn’t good for anyone.
Being in the sunshine provides the richest, natural source of vitamin D, and it’s completely free. The more we learn about it, the more crucial we’re finding it is for growing bodies.
Blur the Lines Between Learning and Playing
Learning should be fun and engaging, but educators don’t often see the potential to make it fun, and it’s sitting right at their doorstep. It’s not hard to foster a sense of joy in nature — kids love spending time outside. When education becomes linked with exciting, outdoor activities, the lines between what they have to learn and what is fun to learn will inevitably become blurred, naturally creating lifelong learners.
Though many schools embracing outdoor education approach it as a classroom without walls where children’s primary learning tool is the outdoors, it doesn’t have to be an all-or-nothing approach. Schools can practice taking several outdoor breaks throughout the day, create lesson plans around an outdoor activity or plan field trips that involve nature — and children can reap the benefits of spending time outdoors.
When schools stop using recess as a way to punish children — poor behavior means less time outside — and treat the outdoors as a necessity rather than an option, then everyone wins. Kids are naturally more focused, less anxious and overall happier when they can spend some time learning and playing outdoors.