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Outdoor Learning

As we prepare for an uncertain and rapidly changing future, the needs of our learners are changing and we need to change with them.

As we prepare for an uncertain and rapidly changing future, the needs of our learners are changing and we need to change with them. Flexible thinking, innovation, adaptability, creativity and social skills emerge from research as areas in which our young people need to be proficient in order to thrive in the workforce of the future. The ‘industrial’ model of education, with children sitting in rows inside a classroom while performing highly-structured tasks and activities, was designed to meet the needs of the first industrial revolution. As we move towards the fourth industrial revolution, it is clearly time for change.

At Cornish College, we believe, as Schumacher tells us in Small is Beautiful: A Study of Economics as if People Mattered (1973), that to prepare our young people for a different kind of future, we need an education of a different kind. Part of this means we take our students outside of the classroom, not just for recess or play, but for curriculum-based lessons as well.

Some educators argue that it is a ‘right’ for children to have access to nature and the natural world. I believe this, in itself, is reason enough to take children outside.

Here are some other excellent reasons why.

Children learn better when they have direct experiences

Hands-on experiences activate the sensory and motor-related parts of the brain. The outdoors is an authentic context for learning that provides students with opportunities to direct their own learning aligning with their interests, thereby increasing student agency. After an outdoor learning experience, recall of concepts have greater clarity and facts can be recalled with greater accuracy.

Nature is good for you

Richard Louv coined the term ‘nature deficit disorder’. As he describes in his book Last Child in the Woods, opportunities for children to spend time in nature are rapidly decreasing. Screen time is increasing, along with rates of anxiety and depression in young people. Never in human history have humans spent so much time indoors – time online comes at the cost of human interaction.

Some of the additional benefits of spending time in nature include:

  • Reduction in stress
  • Improved mood
  • Decreased levels of anxiety and depression
  • Improved sleep

Research has shown that time in nature promotes physical activity, cultivates social connectedness, reduces both blood pressure and blood glucose levels, boosts the immune system, reduces symptoms of attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and improves eyesight, decreasing the risk of myopia (short-sightedness). 

Opportunities to experience the weather and connect with the real world allow students to gain confidence in a variety of settings including the wet and cold, building resilience. Walking and balancing on uneven surfaces fine-tunes our proprioception (our understanding of where we are in space), assisting our balance and fine and gross motor functioning.

Learning in nature helps create and retain new knowledge

Being in nature enables children to have direct experiences with their environment. We know that opportunities to learn in nature can result in improved standardised test scores across the curriculum. 

Other benefits include increased engagement, motivation and attendance at school. Reluctant learners have opportunities to excel in a new environment. Learning in nature provides opportunities to interact positively with peers and teachers away from the restrictive confines of the classroom, developing and fostering social relationships. 

Oral language skills improve as young people can express themselves more freely. Working differently affords opportunities for students to take initiative, innovate, take risks, collaborate, take responsibility, make decisions and problem-solve in new ways.

Being in nature has also shown to be restorative for attention. Spending time in nature (or even with a view of nature) helps the brain recover from sensory and cognitive overload, which improves performance on cognitive tasks. Students perform better when outdoors and this restorative effect has been shown to last for 20 minutes after they return to the classroom.

Learning in, about and with nature connects us to our environment and inspires us to look after it

Spending time in a place creates bonds and connects us – both cognitively and emotionally. This emotional connection raises and develops a sense of responsibility, compassion, care and empathy for the natural world and its creatures. We have evidence that people who spend time in nature as children become adults who care about the environment. If we want our young people to care for the environment, then we must allow them to spend time in it, to form a relationship with it, to love it. They will then become connected, mindfully and authentically, and become our future custodians.

At Cornish College, we are committed to education for a sustainable future. The cognitive and health benefits associated with learning in nature, along with the development of a positive and lifelong relationship with the natural world, make it a vital element of our pedagogical philosophy.

Alex Parrington has been a classroom teacher for 15 years, the past ten of these at Cornish College. She has a passion for science and sustainability. Alex is a Year 1 classroom teacher and a Curriculum Project Leader, and is currently completing a PhD at Monash University, researching teacher practice in outdoor learning.

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