Learning outdoors benefits students academically, socially and physically. And it benefits teachers too. In fact, researchers found that just an hour or two of outdoor learning every week increases teachers' job satisfaction. Teachers want to take lessons outdoors more. So why are students spending more time inside than ever before?
Becoming a trailblazer is usually rewarded in our society. But in the educational system, there are many obstacles to going outside of the system. For many schools, embracing outdoor learning and nature-based learning seems like a paradigm shift or at least a huge endeavor they have little time or resources to take on. Fortunately, there are many organizations to support these efforts. And, often it will take just one knowledgeable teacher to help pioneer nature-based instruction to serve as a liaison, model or guide.
In any school, the changes needed to bring outdoor learning in will require resources and support. We've come up with this list of the four basic elements that schools need in order to gradually bring in more outdoor learning so that kids—and teachers— can thrive.
For starters, the school environment needs access to nature. Every school can't have a full loose parts playground or an award-winning natural playground. But the school grounds should have access to a variety of natural areas for nature play, gardening or nature journaling. The natural elements don't have to be green either. Water features make great places to reflect on nature and logs to sit on are great places to be calm in nature. Parents and parent groups can work with the school, the city or town, parks departments and, often nonprofits, to bring in more natural elements. The good news is that you can easily, and gradually, bring in elements of nature play to your school playground. From building a pond for wildlife, designing a sensory garden or incorporating tree cookies, bringing in natural play elements is a cheap, (usually) easy and super fun class activity.
While most teachers are anxious to head outside, they often feel underconfident in their abilities to guide children when learning outdoors. Many teachers will feel the need to be trained to use nature effectively. The great news is that there are some fantastic programs available to train teachers in nature-based education. Many of these programs offer educators training in nature, place and inquiry-based educational approaches. But there's no reason to wait for an official stamp of approvals, teachers can get started today with these simple nature school hacks borrowed from nature-based educators. And, there are hundreds of ideas they can borrow and tailor to their own needs compliments of these nature-based curriculum sources.
With most school budgets stretched already, this is a great place for parents to take on leadership. Parents can organize to ensure that there's a dedicated portion of the school or PTO/PTA budget that helps fund nature-based learning or outdoor learning. A few ideas are to build a school-wide pollinator garden, suggest funding a Nature-Based Library of books or nature tools as class gifts at the end of the year. In addition, parents can help by making sure children are prepared to dress appropriately for the outdoors with a gently used clothing swap.
Perhaps the most crucial ingredient for bringing learning outdoors is a solid support network. And of the key members of the support network is a supportive principal who sees the value of time spent educating and playing outdoors. And of course, parents must support nature-based learning. That shouldn't be too hard. According to the Muddy Hands Report from the folks behind Outdoor Classroom Day, 94% of parents would like schools to help their kids get outside and discover nature.