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While kids at most schools may be stuck home on a snow day, preschoolers at the Chicago Botanic Garden’s Nature Preschool learn a little about gravity. Photo courtesy Chicago Botanic Garden

The Nature of Learning: Why Kids Need to Get Outside More

Being in nature boosts performance and physical and mental health. So why are most school kids cooped up?

Robert Roy Britt
Apr 11, 2019 · 8 min read

Those glorious days of free-range youth, when we ran through forests or fields after school and spent weekends and summers outside by parental decree, are long gone, replaced by all-day activity scheduling and the lure of social media and video games. Fading, too, is the connection with nature that’s been ingrained in the human psyche and biology throughout time. In just a generation or two, we’ve pulled tots and adolescents away from the natural world, helicoptered them safely inside the house or locked them up in windowless daycare centers and concrete classrooms, all the while robbing them of the very nature of childhood being.

Meanwhile, 20 percent of US school children are obese, triple the figure from the 1970s, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

“Children are designed, by nature, to play often in physically vigorous ways,” says Peter Gray, author of “Free to Learn” (Basic Books). “That is how they develop fit bodies and the capacity for graceful, well-coordinated movement. “Over the past several decades, children’s opportunities to play freely and vigorously have been greatly reduced, and over this same period their physical fitness has declined.”

One reason, Gray points out: About three-quarters of U.S. kids age 3 to 5 are in some sort of daycare or preschool, and on average 70 percent or more of their time there is sedentary.

Several early-learning schools around the country are trying to change all this, for both the academic and physical benefits.

The number of nature-based preschools and so-called “forest kindergartens” jumped 66 percent year-over-year to 250 in 2017, the most recent year for which formal data is available from the Natural Start Alliance, an advocacy group for nature-based learning. Those schools were serving about 10,000 students. The figure has grown since, said Emilian Geczi, director of the alliance. Nearly 400 schools now belong to his organization, “and the real number is likely much higher.”

Some examples:

Some simple math suggests at least 16,000 children, mostly age 3–5, are now attending class partly if not exclusively outside. Several factors are likely driving the growth, Geczi said in an email.

“More parents are looking for programs that draw on children’s interests, play, and curiosity about the world around them to drive the learning,” he said. “And on the supply side, educators feel more prepared and supported in facilitating learning experiences in nature because they have access to a growing number of professional networks, trainings, and even degree programs in nature-based early childhood education.”

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Building blocks are a little different at nature-based preschools. Photo courtesy Dewey School/Allie Gutierrez

Science Catches Up With Intuition

The premise behind nature-based education is rooted in strong educators’ intuition that immersion in the environment stimulates learning and is good for mental and physical health. The notion has gradually gained support from a range of compelling scientific studies going back to the 1990s, most of which, however, were narrow in scope and failed to show cause-and-effect.

As one example of compelling and well-intentioned studies, the American Institutes for Research, a nonprofit behavioral science research group, conducted research for the California Department of Education back in 2005. Researchers split 255 at-risk 6th-graders, many learning English as a second language, into two groups. One had regular classes. The other attended outdoor science schools.

The outdoor students scored 27 percent better on a science test after their time in the program and maintained that elevated level of knowledge in follow-up tests six to 10 weeks later.

However dramatic that might sound, studies like these involve multiple variables that can obscure various possible explanations.

In this case, for example, the kids were removed from their schools and sent to three different far-flung outdoor schools. It’s impossible to say whether the dramatic change in surroundings and daily routine could have influenced their motivation and attention, whether studying outside or not. Maybe more enthusiastic or better-qualified teachers seek outdoor schools. And the findings say nothing about how outdoor schools might affect kids who are not considered at risk.

“No single study can give us confidence that something is generally true,” explains Ming Kuo, an associate professor in natural resources and environmental sciences at the University of Illinois. “Even a single true experiment leaves us worrying that the relationship was only true under the specific conditions it was conducted.”

So Kuo and her colleagues undertook a broad review of more than 500 peer-reviewed studies on the effects of nature on childhood learning. The work, published Feb. 19, 2019 in the journal Frontiers in Psychology, turned up several positive influences from nature, all of which Kuo says have also been shown to improve learning. Being in nature…

The findings of improvement were “very definite” for those first three — attention, stress and self-discipline, Kuo told me.

The team also found natural environments make for a better social climate — calmer, safer, warmer and more cooperative — as well as for more exploratory play. “All of which have also been shown to boost learning,” she said.

Importantly, Kuo said, they found rigorous true experiments showing a cause-and-effect relationship, and many other signs as well.

“Even small exposures to nature are beneficial,” she said. “If you’re indoors, having a view of your yard as opposed to facing the wall, that makes a difference. At the same time, more is better. That’s one of the things that gives us more confidence that we’re seeing a real cause-and-effect relationship: The bigger the dose of nature we give a person, the bigger the effect we see in them.”

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Exercise, teamwork and resilience are among the benefits known to accrue from nature-based schools. Photo courtesy Chicago Botanic Garden

Beyond Just Learning

The results of Kuo’s study weren’t confined just to the learning-boosters noted above, but extended to life skills.

“Report after report — from independent observers as well as participants themselves — indicate beneficial shifts in perseverance, problem-solving, critical thinking, leadership, teamwork, and resilience,” said one of Kuo’s co-authors, Catherine Jordan, an associate professor at the University of Minnesota. “All of these line up with skills we know are important for kids’ ability to thrive in the 21st century.”

The results build on a review last year of 119 science papers published over 20 years. Led by Stanford University researchers, the analysis was done in partnership with the North American Association for Environmental Education and published in the Journal of Environmental Education. Specific benefits of outdoor education programs that were uncovered:

The outdoor students also developed an eye for reducing water use, increasing recycling, and greater civic engagement, the researchers say.

Other studies show benefits of being in nature beyond all of the above.

People who grew up in greener surroundings have up to a 55 percent lower risk of mental disorders as adults, according to a study of nearly 1 million Danes published earlier this year in the US journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

“There is increasing evidence that the natural environment plays a larger role for mental health than previously thought,” said study leader Kristine Engemann of Aarhus University. “With our dataset, we show that the risk of developing a mental disorder decreases incrementally the longer you have been surrounded by green space from birth and up to the age of 10.”

In another study, involving data on 10,400 children and adolescents, researchers found that each hour per week spent outdoors reduced the risk of a kid developing myopia (nearsightedness) by 2 percent.

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We don’t know what this kid is thinking, but we’re pretty sure he is. Photo courtesy Chicago Botanic Garden

Are Public Schools Short-Sighted?

Any parent who’s had a child complain about being stuck in a chair all day might agree that public schools could take a page from the nature-based learning movement. And some are.

For the first time this year, the Natural Start Alliance’s annual conference, scheduled for this summer in New Hampshire, will have a public school track. “We’ll hear from amazing public school educators from Minnesota, Wisconsin, the New England States, and beyond, who take their students outside on a regular basis,” Geczi said.

Short of getting elected to your local school board, there are also things a parent can consider doing if they like the whole idea.

“Talk to your child’s existing school or childcare program about incorporating nature into their day,” Geczi suggests. “Share resources and activity ideas with the educators, volunteer to make the program’s outdoor area more nature-play-friendly, and show your support for any initial steps the program takes in that direction by sharing the news with other families nearby.”

And in this modern era of hyper-supervised child rearing, a little free-range thinking is in order.

Kuo, the University of Illinois researcher, said her team’s review found learning is enhanced in nature not just in formal, educational settings, but by a host of experiences from free play outside and walks in natural environments to the amount of vegetation at home.

“So if your kid plays in a backyard with some greenery, or you walk with them to school along a tree-lined street, or even just does their homework where they have a view of trees, all of that helps,” Kuo told me. “I’d say the main implication for parents is that time outdoors may contribute more to optimal child development than scheduling your kids to the hilt.”

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Robert Roy Britt

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Explainer of things, independent health and science journalist, author, former editor-in-chief of LiveScience and Space dot com.

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Explainer of things, independent health and science journalist, author, former editor-in-chief of LiveScience and Space dot com.

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