Why are we scared of the outdoors? The benefits of working, learning and playing outside.

It was a work seminar in a state of the art conference room. Austere, dark bespoke storage on one side, floor-to-ceiling windows on the other. I sat facing the windows, my eyes instantly drawn to the outside light.

The presentation started. I tried to listen, but the floor-to-ceiling windows revealed too much of the outdoors. I couldn’t resist. The sunlight captured me. It showed me the raw wooden posts, the sunbaked decking boards and a dancing blackbird, chirpy and happy. How lovely, a bird! Oh, and another!

My eyes happily followed the cheeky chap and his friend, as they fluttered and paused, chirped and… mated! I couldn’t help but smile. Perhaps the presenter thought I was smiling at his last remark.

The work seminar proceeded for another two hours. I’ve never witnessed so much bird courtship in two hours! Those birds were truly planning for a large family.

Then lunch came in big platters. A few of us grabbed our sandwiches and rushed outside. Others stayed indoors. I told my colleagues about the bird courtship going on in the previous two hours. They must have thought I was delusional, as my chirpy friends had vanished due to the noise of people.

The sad truth is: we have lost our connection with the outdoors. If you work full-time, you are likely to be indoors most of the day, inhaling re-circulated air, sealed in box with artificial lighting and electrical humming in the background.

This is specially true in education. During my undergraduate years, I never had a lecture, tutorial or other type of educational activity outdoors. This was Brazil, a sun-blessed country. Most days were gorgeous. We could have easily taken a picnic blanket and sat on the grass while conjugating Latin verbs or discussing Rimbaud’s poetry. I should have realised earlier on that my professors would never let us out into the open. They had screen tired eyes and discoloured skin from 24/7 indoor living and working.

Fast-forward to my graduate years in Australia, another sun-blessed country. I recall a particularly interesting informal tutorial, students and professor seated in a large circle in the workshop room. All I could think was why we couldn’t do that outside, sitting in a circle around the large gum tree, getting the dappled sun and the light breeze.

I was surprised to hear rebuttals from both professors and students:

Too hard. How are we going to write our notes? Too many distractions (birds mating?). The students will lose focus. Some people are allergic. (Really? I’m allergic to indoor dust mites). Not everyone have sunscreen. I can’t sit on the ground for too long. Latecomers won’t know where we are, if we go outside. I might get stung by bees. The ants will crawl all over my feet. I won’t be able to show the PowerPoint presentation.

Oh dear! I shouldn’t have given up. I didn’t persist with my argument for an outdoor class. My peers and I stayed indoors for the remainder of the academic year. But I wondered what could have happened to our education if we had ventured outside a few times during the year. What would have been added to our discussions? Would we have interacted with each other differently? Would we have had more or less focus?

Lecture theatres and tutorial rooms are not the only possibilities for learning. Offices and meeting rooms are not the only places where work can happen.

I’ve learned more about politics talking to my back neighbour, leaning over the fence. Walking in a forest has given me more insight about poems rhythms than sitting at my desk. Breathing fresh air and getting natural sunlight has refreshed me more than a cup of strong coffee. Being out in nature reminds us who we really are: part of it.

What about the objections to being outdoors? I’ve been stung by wasps when gardening once. But I have also had my finger crushed in a filing cabinet in the office. I have had ants crawl over my feet outdoors, but I’ve seen cockroaches roaming around the kitchen of a corporate office. Too bright sunlight has occasionally induced headaches. But let me tell you, I always got headaches when working in front of a computer screen, locked up in an office with no windows.

It is equinox. Day and night are approximately equal in duration, have you noticed? It is the beginning of autumn here in Australia. Where ever you are, have you observed any difference? Have you seen the colour change in leaves? What flowers are open now? What direction are the sun rays coming from? Is the air dry or moist? Any there any bird courting? Are ants more or less active? Is the wind cooler? Warmer?

What the heck is happening outside your safe four walls? Don’t know? Time to explore… Get out!

Some ideas to get you started on your outings:

There has been a lot written about walking meetings, with big players such as Barack Obama adopting it. Want to find out how to get started? Try these tips from not-for-profit organisation Victoria Walks.

Nature Play is an organisation based in three Australian states. Its mission is to foster unstructured play in the outdoors for all children. Did you know that an average Australian child spends less time outdoors than a maximum security prisoner?

US based National Wildlife Federation lists many health benefits of playing outside. Remember, play is good for children and adults!

Want to show your professor the benefits of having a lecture in the campus gardens? The Department of Environmental Conservation of NY State (US) wrote an academically referenced article about the benefits of immersing ourselves in forests. 

Need a long bibliography to show the academy? The American Society of Landscape Architects provides hundreds of research articles, case studies and resources about the health benefits of nature.

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