Outdoor Lessons Improve Children's Learning

CC BY 2.0. Peter

A study found that, after teaching a lesson outside, teachers were able to hold kids' attention for nearly twice as long during a subsequent indoor lesson.

Some elementary school teachers are reluctant to take their students outside for lessons for fear it will get them too riled up and unable to focus. After all, deviations from normal routine do have a tendency to throw kids off, and there is so much to distract outdoors.

But a study recently published in the academic journal, Frontiers in Psychology, has found that teaching kids outside has the opposite effect. Instead of distracting them, it improves their ability to focus and engage with schoolwork.

Ming Kuo, lead study author and a scientist at the University of Illinois, said:

"We wanted to see if we could put the nature effect to work in a school setting. If you took a bunch of squirmy third-graders outdoors for lessons, would they show a benefit of having a lesson in nature, or would they just be bouncing off the walls afterward?"

The researchers conducted their study in a Midwestern grade school over a 10-week period. Two third-grade classrooms participated, one with a teacher who was enthusiastic about outdoor learning and the other with a teacher who was skeptical about it. Each teacher held one lesson per week outdoors before returning to their regular classroom setting. The outdoor classroom was a grassy spot just outside the school, within view of a wooded area.

Following the outdoor lesson, class engagement was assessed in four ways: (1) the teacher's perception of the students' level of engagements; (2) the students' ratings of theirs and their classmates' engagement; (3) the number of "redirects" during the lesson, when teachers had to call the kids' attention back to the lesson; and (4) independent photo ratings, where ratings of classroom engagement by an independent observer were based on photos of the observation period.

The researchers found that, in the period of time following an outdoor lesson, children were far more capable of focusing and significantly more engaged in their schoolwork. The so-called 'nature effect' "allowed teachers to teach uninterrupted for almost twice as long during a subsequent indoor lesson." The authors wrote,

"The rate of 'redirects,' or instances where a teacher interrupted the flow of instruction to redirect students' attention, was cut almost in half after a lesson in nature. Normally, these redirects occur roughly once every 3.5 min of instruction; after a lesson in nature, classroom engagement is such that teachers are able to teach for 6.5 min, on average, without interruption."

All of the lessons were carefully matched -- same topic, teaching style, week of the semester, even time of day -- so that the advantage of the nature-based lessons could not be attributed to any of these factors.

This study differs from other research in that lesson structure and academic content did not change with the surroundings. Kids were still expected to follow the usual rules against socializing and autonomous activity typical of classroom-based lessons.

The results offer yet more proof that children thrive in nature and that time spent outdoors during the school day is never a waste. Hopefully studies like this one can shape the national discourse surrounding public education and spur changes that are desperately needed.