Is outdoor education the way of the future?

child at outdoor preschool
CC BY 2.0 USFWS Mountain Prairie

For a long time, people have bought into the idea that academic success is the result of extreme discipline. Children and adolescents who have parents standing over them with a metaphorical whip, making sure homework gets done and paying for extra tutoring or SAT boot camps, are the ones who “succeed.” They know the answers to the teachers’ questions, get good grades, and go on to college and promising careers. It’s considered normal for a student to feel bored with schoolwork and need constant prompting from parents.

But there’s something wrong with this accepted path to success. It relies too heavily on nagging parents, and punishes the majority of students that doesn’t have relentless parental support. It also fails to address the serious issue of disengagement, which is a growing problem in the United States. One study from Indiana State University found that nearly half of U.S. students report feeling bored daily, half report skipping school “at least once or twice,” and 20 percent consider dropping out entirely.

Education should not be associated with drudgery, which is why more parents and researchers are leaning toward a common solution. Outdoor education may be the key to saving the North American school system, according to a fascinating article published in Salon, called “Outdoor learning: Education’s next revolution?

Children learn better outdoors. Their marks go up; they attend more frequently; they are better focused; and the need for discipline diminishes. Richard Louv, who coined the phrase “nature deficit disorder” in his influential book, “Last Child in the Woods,” is a major supporter of moving children’s education out of the schools that dot our towns and cities -- hideous, brick-and-mortar buildings with uninspiring rows of desks facing a whiteboard. These have proven not to work well as effective educational facilities, if levels of disengagement, boredom, and dropout are an accurate measure.

By moving the classroom outside, Louv explains how children learn how to use their senses more accurately. He cites an 18-month study of 800 military personnel who found that rural-dwelling children were the best bomb-spotters because they notice details about their natural surroundings in a way that children raised indoors on technology cannot. The children who “were raised on Game Boys lacked the ability to detect nuances” in their environment, and were focused on the “screen rather than the whole surrounding.”

A growing number of parents are opting to enroll their children in preschools that exist entirely in the outdoors, rain or shine, and use leaves, insects, and the ever-popular mud puddle as the basis for lessons. Older students still require some academic rigour, but there’s no reason why that should preclude them from spending time outside -- gardening, farming, fishing, hiking, and basically learning how to work. Those invaluable lessons not only instill good work ethics, but also are more likely to keep students engaged – and that should be one of the educational system’s top priorities. They will also be the next generation of environmentalists, since children who spend time outdoors will have greater incentive to protect the natural spaces they love.

An unwilling student will not learn much, but one who views the entire world as a classroom will never stop learning.

Is outdoor education the way of the future?
Based on rates of dropout, disengagement, and boredom, traditional schools are failing U.S. students and it's time to look for an alternative.

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