child learning outdoors

Nature is having its moment. Covers of magazines proclaim nature science’s “new” miracle drug. Every week produces a new study on the benefits of nature. Doctors are prescribing it to patients. Cities are making more room for it in their planning efforts. But there's one place nature where is not spreading like wildfire—schools.

Yet, the benefits of nature for learning are indisputable. And 94% of parents would like schools to help their kids get outside and discover nature. While nature-based preschools are on the rise (growing tenfold in ten years in the U.S., according to the Natural Start Alliance), the majority of America’s public schools are moving in the opposite direction—opting for reduced recess, fewer field trips, longer hours sitting at desks, more tests and more screens.

So if your child has aged out of forest kindergarten where do you see nature fitting into their day? As a parent, do you settle for limiting your child’s nature to school breaks, after school and weekends? Is there any hope of getting nature into your child’s school day if your school doesn’t put nature on its priority list

Though educators, principals, superintendents and school boards are very much the deciding factor in how often students take to the outdoors, there are actually many ways that parents can foster more nature-based learning in school. From your choice of class gifts to building a green schoolyard, parents can certainly play a role in making nature a part of the academic landscape. 

1. Grow a Green Schoolyard

Green Schoolyards are an excellent way to bring nature into your child’s school day. Studies show that when school grounds get greener, student performance improves and play gets more creative. Studies have found that schools with more greenery had higher test scores even when adjustments were made for race, gender, English as a second language, income, student-teacher ratio and school attendance. Green schoolyards can foster  STEAM learning so it shouldn’t be a tough sell for your next PTO funding meeting. Most parents will be sold on the idea that greening schoolyards may be one of the most cost-effective ways to raise student test scores.

If your school lacks a green schoolyard (and most do), luckily there are resources available to get you started. The Children & Nature Network offers resources to help you and your allies confidently “make the case” for green schoolyards, whether the audience is your school board, superintendent, principal, teachers, parents or community members. The toolkit even includes a School Board Advocacy Toolkit, with information on school district structures and how to work with community decision-makers, download. Never underestimate the power ow partnerships. Partnerships with parks departments, local nonprofits are a great way to green your school grounds.

In addition, the International School Grounds Alliance (ISGA)’s Activity Guide includes over 100 well-designed activities that educators can lead outdoors. Each activity is categorized according to discipline(s) and is essentially and print and go resource year-round!

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2. Coordinate Out of School Learning

The pressure to achieve optimal standardized test scores combined with a concern for liability has led to a trend to keep kids inside, in the classroom and on school grounds. The result has been a decline in field trips at many schools. 

But state and national parks, museums, historic sites and other landmarks offer such rich nearby options for out of school learning. And cities, where our demographic trends are heading, offer even more in the way of out of school learning opportunities.

In fact, experts tell us that out of school learning is often more effective than classroom-based learning. In an American Scientist article, authors John H. Falk and Lynn D. Dierking made the case that school is not where most Americans learn most of their science. It’s museums, libraries, zoos, aquariums, national parks, 4-H clubs, scouting, nature centers, state and local parks, and the nearby nature of our neighborhoods, where science is learned. 

Of course, educators already have a lot on their plate so adding in out of classroom trips may be a luxury of time that they just don’t have. As a parent, you can help your child’s teacher organize such trips by doing research on where to go, how to get there, and how to fund it.  PTOs will make funding available for class trips. You can also organize the list of chaperones so your child’s teacher will feel fully supported during the trip.

3. Recruit Outside Experts to Come In

Recall the adage “it takes a village to raise a child”? Same for educating a child. Fortunately, there are many nature-based experts and organizations outside of school who you can help to bring into your child’s classroom. From state or national park staff to Audubon centers, colleges or nature centers, many nature-based professionals are willing and able to come to schools to talk about anything from ecology to pollinators to recycling. Think creatively and of course work with your child’s teacher about who/what specialty would be most useful to the curriculum. Once you agree on a focus, be open to doing the research for your child’s teacher.

4. Help Teachers Get Nature Educated

Teachers want to bring the outside into the curriculum. According to the Muddy Hands report from the folks behind Outdoor Classroom Day, over a quarter of teachers in the US worry about extra preparation needed to take lessons outdoors. While one in five UK teachers (20%) shared the same concern. With training, they will not only learn skills to bring learning outside, but they will also learn about the abundant resources available to them, including ready to use the curriculum. So how can you help teachers get up to speed in nature-based learning approaches? How about helping to get them trained through workshops or online courses? From onsite workshops for garden educators, online courses or webinars & training courses from nature-based learning experts like Claire Warden, your child’s teacher may feel more confident bringing nature in with some extra training. Check out our list of workshops, courses and programs to learn the basics of nature-based education. 

Funding the training shouldn't be too difficult with continuing education funding, grants for educators, PTO funding or other sources. Speak with your child's teachers about sources of funding they are aware of, as well as the school Principal. 

5. Stock up on Nature-based Classroom Tools

Owl pellet kids, beaver dam models, scat replicas...sometimes it takes nifty props and tools to get kids (and teachers) interested in exploring nature. Speak to your child’s teacher about their science curriculum, brainstorm ideas for kits/models/resources then help organize the funding. Remember that nature-based learning tools make excellent classroom gifts or end of year gifts. Need ideas? Check out our slideshow!