Education outside the classroom can have a positive effect on biological stress regulation

Dettweiler, U. ., Gerchen, M. ., Mall, C. ., Simon, P. ., & Kirsch, P. . (2022). Choice matters: Pupils’ stress regulation, brain development and brain function in an outdoor education project. British Journal of Educational Psychology, 93, 152-173.

Documented benefits of Education Outside the Classroom (EOtC) include increased physical, mental and social well-being for students. Some evidence suggests that these benefits might be partiailly attributed to the outdoor classrooms giving students more opportunities for self-determined behavior than what indoor classrooms do. This study, which builds on the previous research, is based in part on Stress Reduction Theory (SRT) which suggests that engagement with nature can evoke positive emotions that block negative thoughts and emotions. The positive emotions shut down the stress response which includes negative hormonal, cardiovascular and musculoskeletal parameters.

This study explored the effects of students' autonomy support (AUT) and physical activity (PA) on their biological stress responses and brain development in EOtC. Two groups of fifth and sixth grade students in Germany participated. Thirty-seven of the students were in an intervention group; eleven in a control group. The intervention group participated in an outdoor education classroom experience in a forest one day a week over one school year. The control group received the same instruction in an indoor classroom. Four types of assessments were used to measure impact of the intervention: acceleration sensors for physical activity; salivary cortisol for stress response; MRI for changes in brain structure; and a paper-based survey for perceived autonomy support. Structural magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) was used at the beginning and end of the school year, and functional MRI under a stress condition at the end of the year. Cortisol levels were obtained three times – at the beginning, mid-term, and end of the school year. Perceived autonomy is conceived as choices students feel they can make.

Results showed that students in EOtC were more physically active, and that light physical activity in the natural environment had a stress-buffering effect with an associated decrease in cortisol during the school day compared to the control group. Changes in limbic brain structure (amygdala, hippocampus, anterior cingulate cortex [ACC]) over the school year were best explained simply by maturation. However, there were statistically significant relationships between perceived autonomy support/choicefulness and volume of the ACC, indicating that higher choicefulness over the school year is credibly associated with greater maturation of the ACC at the end of the school year. This effect was stronger in the outdoors as EOtC is characterized by greater choicefulness than classroom-based instruction. Data from structural MRI under stress suggested that students in EOtC with lower cortisol values at the end of the school days had less brain activation; the opposite was true for children in the control group. EOtC and mindfulness seem to address similar stress control networks in the brain.

The authors conclude “that autonomy supportive teaching fosters cerebral maturation and that EOtC can have a positive effect on biological stress regulation.”

Research Partner

Research Category