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The benefits of outdoor learning

In this article, Professor Helen Bilton describes the wide range of benefits of outdoor learning.
© University of Reading

The beauty of learning outdoors is that it’s a holistic experience that benefits and enhances emotional, social, cognitive, physical and linguistic development. In the drawing below, a child describes how they feel, how they judge themselves and what they learn outside. They haven’t compartmentalised their learning.

© Helen Bilton.

Let’s explore the advantages in more detail and address some common misconceptions about outdoor learning.

Let’s start with a well-known benefit

On a basic level, fresh air is very good for us! Professor Calum Semple, University of Liverpool and member of the UK’s Scientific Group for Emergencies (SAGE) argues that better ventilation in schools would improve health. Another way to improve ventilation is simply to go outside, regularly throughout the day. Sunlight enables the synthesis of Vitamin D while physical activity strengthens muscles, increases bone density and flexibility and improves cardio-respiratory functions.

Some adults lean towards suggesting time outdoors is better suited for boys because ‘they like to move’ but this is wrong – all children have an equal right to feel confident and comfortable outside. This is even more pertinent as emphasis is placed on women feeling safe outside regardless of time or place.

When children move well their self-esteem improves1. And the COVID-19 pandemic has demonstrated that simply going outside is good for our mental health and wellbeing.

The freedom to be themselves

Children feel empowered when they are outside. Think about a home, which is generally considered to be ‘owned’ by the parents/carers, or a classroom which is ‘owned’ by the teacher. Yet no-one considers ‘owning’ the outside and children are less likely to feel judged or measured there. They are therefore, more likely to show their true selves and potential.

Much of outdoor learning is unpredictable, from suddenly being rained on, to the wind whipping away something you are holding lightly or getting stung by nettles. When children take part in activities which could go wrong, or with outcomes which aren’t a given, they must find a way through them themselves. Evidence shows that if children are in a position of uncertainty and anxiety regularly, they are better placed to deal with these challenges as adults2.

There’s a view that children with autism cannot cope with the unpredictable nature of outdoors. However, early research indicates that children with moderate and severe autism given the opportunity to explore the natural environment regularly are able to cope with the unpredictable nature of being outdoors and behaviour improves.

Expressing themselves

Children can be noisy and messy outside. Outdoors is ideal for group work because children can negotiate when building or observing together, without the anxiety of being told to be quiet.

Learning outside lends itself to projects involving discussions which means learning to listen, talk and develop a wide vocabulary. There is good evidence that the vocabulary you have at age 2 is a strong predictor of future achievement3. In Step 1.4 you read that learning outdoors exposes children to more varied experiences (such as variety in the colour green) and therefore naturally expands their vocabulary and enhances their language development.

©Gi Dais. Taking the first steps outside

speech bubble that reads UOR TIP

Learning outside also lends itself to longer term projects providing numerous opportunities to develop and track children’s experiences and their learning. You’ll explore this in more detail in a later article.

Bringing it all together

As children build their knowledge of flora and fauna, the geology or the weather through exploring outdoors, they also learn to observe, to persevere, to be patient, to be curious and to be willing to make errors. The following is an example of how outdoor learning develops children holistically:

Three Key Stage 2 boys in today’s explorers’ session were interested in climbing a tree. One of the boys however, could not reach the initial branch of the tree and so the other two boys decided to assist him. Under supervision from an adult, the boys worked together to create a flat wooden structure beneath the tree so that the boy who was finding it hard to climb could reach the first branch. Collaborative mathematical language emerged such as “put it this to this end”; “no, that is taller”; “that’s a bit small”; “that’s the tallest tree”; “I know it will balance”. Physical skills acquisition and practice included tying knots, manoeuvring objects to create a safe platform to stand on, working in a confined space and then safely climbing up and down the tree (climbing down is very different from climbing up and can, to some extent, require overcoming greater fear, as one may have to look down to climb safely). On an emotional level, two children were trying to ameliorate the anxiety of another child who desperately wanted to climb the tree. Through the adult’s observation, it was possible to show that this situation encompassed a complex array of language, physical skills and emotions and the learning experience was meaningful because the children were working through a real situation”. (This example of the benefits of outdoor learning is from ‘Exploring Outdoors: A Guide to Schools’ by Bilton, H and Crook, A.)

speech bubble that reads UOR TIP

Children are perfectly capable of working out the risk. Talk to them about what they think are the potential dangers of an area.

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In the next Step, you’ll revisit the case study school and see how they’ve incorporated climate and sustainability into their culture.

1 Understanding Motor Development: Infants, Children, Adolescents, Adults by Gallahue, Osmun & Goodway.
2Adventurous Play as a Mechanism for Reducing Risk for Childhood Anxiety: A Conceptual Model by Dodd & Lester (2021). Clinical Child and Family Psychology Review, 24. pp. 164-181.
3 Size matters: Early vocabulary as a predictor of language and literacy competence by Joanne Lee.
© University of Reading
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