Take it outside: Why nature may be your new favorite teaching assistant

Outdoor classroom

It never fails. My laptop starts being glitchy, and IT’s first question: Have you shut it down recently? What we know to be true for computers is the same for our own brains—especially the brains of your students.

While we live in an always-on, smartphone-addicted society, we nevertheless understand we need to unplug occasionally. But it’s not just an instinct; science backs it up. Right behind your forehead is the prefrontal cortex, which is responsible for your logic-based planning and decision-making—like the CEO of your brain. When we disconnect from technology – for at least a few days in a row – that part of your brain goes into what scientists call “default mode,” and we experience a 50% increase in our creative problem-solving.

But while disconnecting for days at a time is not realistic for most of us, it turns out that connecting with nature each day is an especially helpful way to get your brain into default mode—to give it a natural brain break. Except, these days, it’s often difficult for kids to spend time outside. From our own parental reservations to the rapid rise of technology, it often falls to schools to create that crucial access to the natural world.

The proven educational benefits of nature

Giving young brains a break from daily stress is a wonderful side effect of being outdoors, but that interaction with nature also has a huge impact on learning and the students’ enjoyment of the lesson—along with improvement in their social skills, behavior and retention. Click to tweet!

And the opportunity goes way beyond just outdoor recess: Research conducted by the Natural Connections Demonstration Project in England proved that taking classroom lessons outside results in a host of cognitive benefits, including “improved concentration, awareness, reasoning, creativity, imagination and cognitive functioning.” The report reveals additional findings:

“The outdoor environment encourages skills such as problem-solving and risk-taking, which are important behaviours for child development. Therefore, delivering lessons in the outdoor environment can enrich learning and engagement, widen skill development and improve health, well-being and enjoyment in school.”

But what do teachers say? One organization surveyed educators across 45 different countries to find out what really happens when they take it outside:

  • 88% of teachers said children were more engaged in the learning process (in the U.S., that figure was even higher at 91%).
  • 68% said children were better able to concentrate.
  • 68% said children were better behaved.
  • 89% said children were happier overall.

Implementation is easier than you think

Most educators I know are on board with the theory but often struggle with the practice. Keeping up with curriculum requirements, outdoor safety issues, weather—it’s often difficult to change up your classroom routine. Plus, when you picture “outdoor learning,” the first thing that may come to mind is all the additional effort and how you can even start to translate the indoor instructional approach to an unpredictable outdoor environment.

But whether you have a specifically designed space or just a little corner of nature, a few purposeful steps can reap great rewards. By leveraging professional learning communities, key partnerships with community organizations, and online curriculum resources, educators can build a set of tools that gives them the flexibility and confidence to take learning outdoors.

LearnscapeI’ve been lucky to be a part of some amazing projects through our Learnscape program. Last year’s project with Sunflower Elementary in the Shawnee Mission School District was really driven by student demand, and Joan Leavens, the district’s coordinator of sustainability and community engagement, said the adjustment for teachers didn’t take long:

“What we historically have seen is that when there’s a school garden or an outdoor learning space, it goes from, ‘I have a 30-minute lesson; can I do it outside?’ to ‘Let’s go outside, spend several hours, and we’ll do math and science and social studies, and we’ll have an experience that ties in all these curricular opportunities.’ The teachers are excited and comfortable, it’s now part of who they are. They’re making use of it in all kinds of ways.”

In the end, it comes down to creating environments and experiences that allow teachers and students to tap into the natural instinct we all have—to connect with nature as a way to learn more effectively about the world around us.

After all, a little daily reboot always does us good.

Michelle Chavey is a partner at Hollis + Miller Architects, an integrated architecture firm that designs the future of learning environments, including public, private, K-12 and higher education. Share your thoughts on Facebook, LinkedIn or on Twitter @HollisandMiller.

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