With the return to school following pandemic closures, we've seen articles and photos touting taking classes outdoors as one strategy to keep students and teachers healthy. But learning in a natural environment has many benefits beyond access to fresh air! There is an entire field of study dedicated to Outdoor Education.
What does outdoor education mean?
The term outdoor education is a broad descriptor for many ways learning happens beyond the classroom walls. As described in the Wikipedia entry, "Outdoor education has diverse goals and practices, but always involves learning about, in, and through the outdoors."
As schools look to getting their students outdoors more frequently, educators at The Independence School in Newark, Delaware, sought to see if we could quantify and assess the value of our outdoor education initiatives to date. The school has a partnership with the Stroud Water Research Center in Kennett Square, PA., to provide hands-on learning experiences for middle school students outdoors on our 90-acre campus and at the research center's nearby facilities.
Our collaboration with Stroud has been in place for more than five years and has helped us better understand the many ways we can use our campus for learning. Last spring, Independence's Center for Wellness Innovation and Learning (CWIL) connected with researchers from Millersville University and Stroud to study the impact of outdoor learning on our students and faculty. The study included a survey of 133 middle school (grades 6-8) students, a survey of seventeen middle school teachers, and follow-up interviews with four teachers.
The key takeaways:
- Students overwhelmingly reported that they are comfortable being outside, that being outside evoked positive feelings (e.g., happy, calm, focused, cooperative), and that being outside enhanced their ability to collaborate with peers.
- Time spent outdoors during the school day increased due to the COVID 19 pandemic as most students reported that they went outside more during the school day, most often for lunch and breaks.
- Students' reported enjoyment of the outdoors corresponded with their generally positive attitude towards both science and engineering as measured by the Friday Institute (2012) S-STEM survey. This suggests that students feel able and willing to engage in STEM learning outdoors. Particularly exciting was that there was no gender difference in their interest in science and engineering. They felt equally positive about both subjects.
- Teachers explained that increased outdoor use was due to encouragement and support from school administration, choices of outdoor areas, and COVID-19. Teachers were able to describe many different subjects, topics, and activities they taught outside.
- Teachers reported that students are excited to go outside for their classes, are more creative when outdoors, and can collaborate more for group work.
- Teachers now recognize that they can bring students outdoors for both learning and recreation. They noted that even after being outside for a short time, students returned to the classroom better behaved and engaged, with improved moods.
The Independence School continues to grow outdoor education on its inspiring campus and opened a 57,000 square foot outdoor classroom and learning naturescape this fall.