The Promise of Outdoor Education in Schools

Rios, J. M., & Brewer, J. (2014). Outdoor education and science achievement. Applied Environmental Education & Communication, 13, 234-240.

In most school settings in the United States, elementary students have limited opportunities to learn in outdoor settings, yet recent research has demonstrated several positive benefits associated with such opportunities. In this article, the authors provide a brief literature review of various positive impacts of outdoor education on achievement, behavior, and environmental attitudes. Additionally, the authors highlight several practical outdoor activities and suggest useful resources for classroom teachers.

Previous research has shown connections between frequent outdoor learning experiences and enhanced science achievement in students. Guided by a properly trained teacher, outdoor learning opportunities can result in greater student engagement and higher science achievement. Often, these outdoor learning experiences serve as a means to increase scientific content knowledge and develop environmentally conscious students. Even learning in familiar outdoor settings, such as schoolyards, helps students engage with, and form attachments to, the world around them. In particular, the authors of this article noted that their students—elementary-aged students from a public K–5 school in the Pacific Northwest— showed increased academic success when given the opportunity to learn outside.

Previous research has demonstrated positive benefits of outdoor learning, beyond engagement and academic outcomes. When students were given unstructured time to play outside, classroom behavior often improved and teachers experienced easier classroom management. With such unstructured time outdoors, students may also develop positive environmental attitudes. Hands-on, experiential learning has also been linked to physical and emotional development, in addition to cognitive development.

Based on their literature review, the authors offer several suggestions as to how to effectively incorporate outdoor experiences into school learning. Specifically, they emphasize the use of schoolyards. To encourage play within natural landscapes, schools can integrate native plants, nature-inspired play equipment, and school gardens into existing schoolyards. In urban areas, setting up bird feeders, building portable planter boxes, or planting rooftop gardens can all be effective ways of supporting outdoor learning. For schools with easier access to natural areas, the authors suggest using nearby fields, forests, streams, or gardens as the context of lessons. When children engage in learning outdoors, teachers should emphasize the use of the five senses. In getting children to use their senses and describe observations outside (such as asking, “What do you notice when you try to wrap your arms around this tree?”), teachers help students develop basic science concepts.

Because outdoor learning can enrich and deepen scientific understanding, the authors recommend that teachers infuse their current curriculum with outdoor learning experiences. Additionally, the authors provide links to specific resources (such as the Children and Nature Network, the Pacific Education Institute, Project WET, Project Learning Tree, and Project WILD), as well as practical examples, supported by research, of outdoor science activities that teachers can implement in schoolyard settings. The following list, adapted from the article, suggests key science learning concepts and environmental education activities that help build basic science skills.

• Observing: Encourage local wildlife in the schoolyard with bird feeders and native plants; allow students to observe an insect's life cycle or note how other plants and animals or the seasons change over time.
• Classifying: Students can group living and nonliving things based on unique characteristics.
• Measuring: After observing similarities and differences in native plants or animals, students can use that knowledge to measure new outdoor discoveries.
• Communicating: Students can keep a science journal to note their outdoor observations and use the journal during class discussions.
• Inferring: Students can use their senses to investigate a plant or animal outdoors and then make a conclusion about why that living thing is able to exist in the schoolyard, or draw a conclusion about other places students would find those plants or animals.

The Bottom Line

<p>Outdoor education opportunities should be a priority in education. Schools should provide access to outdoor settings on school property and teachers should integrate outdoor experiences into traditional curricula as a means to enhance science learning. By engaging students with outdoor learning experiences, schools help support science achievement and engagement, as well as encourage positive environmental attitudes within students. Schoolyards are often effective places for outdoor learning experiences. Practical means with which to enhance schoolyard learning experiences include building school gardens, constructing bird feeders, and incorporating native plants.</p>