Nature-specific learning outside the classroom has measurable socio-emotional, academic and wellbeing benefits for school children across all ages

Mann, J. ., Gray, T. ., Truong, S. ., Brymer, E. ., Passy, R. ., Ho, S. ., … Curry, C. . (2022). Getting out of the classroom and into nature: A systematic review of nature-specific outdoor learning on school children’s learning and development. Frontiers in Public Health, 10.

Nature-specific learning outside the classroom (NSLOtC) is a form of education that is conducted outside on school grounds and other locations with natural environments, such as parks, forests, and nature centers. NSLOtC may take place during curricular time or outside school hours and may address different areas of cognitive, social, emotional, and moral development. Documented benefits of NSLOtC have led many schools and educators to express interest in expanding their programs to include more outdoor learning experiences. Yet, there are few guidelines for how to best implement NSLOtC for effective learning. This research addressed this issue by conducting a systematic review of the literature aimed at providing some guidance for developing such programs.

A total of 147 studies were included in this review. All were published in English language academic journals between 2000 and 2020. The studies focused on NSLOtC programs for school-aged participants (kindergarten through high school) and assessed measurable outcomes in one or more of the following areas: academic, wellbeing or socioemotional development. The programs included both curricular and non-curricular learning contexts. The qualitative and/or quantitative research quality of each study was identified through the use of established checklist tools. Fifty-two of the quantitative studies receiving higher quality ratings were then analyzed in more detail.

The included studies were conducted across 20 countries; most of them in the U.S. The learning settings ranged across outdoor adventure education, school gardens, field trips, and traditional school subjects taught in natural environments. The four most common contexts were adventure education, residential camps, curricular lessons conducted in the outdoors, and school gardens. “Soft skills” relating to self-concept and intrapersonal skills – along with social and interpersonal skills – were the most common reported outcomes. Other reported outcomes included increased student engagement and ownership of their learning. Findings also provided some evidence of academic improvement. Most of the studies “had at least moderate quality, and curricular lessons in the local outdoors had the highest rigor across quantitative and qualitative research designs.”

This review indicates that NSLOtC has measurable socio-emotional, academic and wellbeing benefits for school children across all ages. These findings support the incorporation of NSLOtC into every child’s school experience. This research calls attention to the need for pre-service and in-service teacher preparation focusing on the use of natural settings to promote student learning. Additional research is needed “to clarify the conditions under which specific forms of outdoor learning are most efficacious for various target outcomes.” Improving the quality of research in this field is also needed.

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