Outdoor Education Benefits
Outdoor education is lacking in today’s schools. Getting outdoors, whether for a hike, a visit to the beach, a picnic at the park, or a camping trip – most would agree that nature provides a much-needed opportunity to refresh or hit the reset button for young students and adults alike. Vacations, staycations, digital detoxes – however you phrase it, taking time away from the stress of daily life is essential to our physical and mental well-being. Why then, don’t schools place the same emphasis on outdoor education?
FOREST BATHING IS GREAT FOR YOU
In the 1980s, shinrin-yoku, loosely translated as “forest bathing” or “nature bathing” was popularized in Japan, and has recently gained ground in western countries. A quick scan of local Meet-Up and facebook groups finds hundreds dedicated to getting outdoors, exercising, and reconnecting with nature. Instagram hashtags like #gooutsideandplay, #optoutside, and #getoutside reveal thousands of users who unwind in nature as a form of nature therapy (even if they ignore shinrin-yoku’s suggestion to disconnect from technology and simply be present in the moment).
The importance of deliberately and intentionally going outside (forest bathing/nature bathing), taking in the beauty of nature, and disengaging from daily stressors has caught the eye of researchers as well. Preliminary social science scholarship has found a correlation between the distance a person lives from nature to a reduction in health problems like anxiety, depression, obesity, and hypertension. Dr. Kelly Lambert, a neuroscientist at the University of Richmond, studies the effects of nature on the brain. While being outdoors fosters social interaction and encourages exercise, Lambert’s research also suggests exposure to “native” environments may trigger a deep psychological or physiological evolutionary response.
NATURE DEFICIT DISORDER IN CHILDREN
Richard Louv, cofounder of the Children and Nature Network and author of Vitamin N and Last Child in the Woods, writes about the cognitive benefits of letting children explore, take risks, and (for lack of a better term) run wild. Louv coined the phrase “nature deficit disorder” to describe the effects he attributes to separation from nature: increased obesity and lower levels of attention, creativity, and mental health. Improved after-school programs, innovations in technology (including computers, phones, and video games) and increased parental fears of outside dangers (like strangers, traffic, and “wasted” or unsupervised time) have all contributed to a decrease in children’s time outdoors.
In a 2010 interview with The Guardian, Louv laments, “It’s that sense of ownership that’s important – ownership of nature. How many children get that now? […] Nature is something to watch from a distance, something to consume. Something very profound has happened in children’s relationship to nature.”
Louv isn’t alone in touting the benefits of playing outdoors. Lambert cites outdoor play as an important way children are exposed to a larger array of microbes, crucial for boosting their immune systems as adults. A recent study by Aarhus University in Denmark found that children who grew up with the least access to nature had up to a 55% greater risk of developing a psychiatric disorder. In her post 6 Reasons Children Need to Play Outside Dr. Claire McCarthy, writing for Harvard Medical School’s Health Publishing blog, cites outdoor play as a crucial way kids develop executive functioning and social skills, including multitasking, risk assessment and resilience.
OUTDOOR EDUCATION IN SCHOOLS
The Power of Play, a 2018 clinical report from The American Academy of Pediatrics, specifically cites outdoor play as a way children can improve motor, cognitive, social, and linguistic skills. The report describes recess or outdoor education during the school day as essential: “[C]ountries that offer more recess to young children see greater academic success among the children as they mature. Supporting and implementing recess not only sends a message that exercise is fundamentally important for physical health but likely brings together children from diverse backgrounds to develop friendships as they learn and grow.”
How are schools incorporating the outdoors into education? Using nature as a classroom isn’t a new concept, but since the passage of No Child Left Behind and the subsequent rise in standardized testing, the need to ensure students get outside has become more urgent. Increased reliance on technology and screen-time, even among younger learners, needs to be balanced with a healthy dose of sunshine and trees.
Given the overwhelming research on the positive effects of the outdoors on adults and young children, why do many schools eliminate recess or unstructured outdoor time for middle and high schoolers? With increasing rates of teenage depression, stress and anxiety, it seems more essential than ever to emphasize outdoor education and environmental education for older children and teens. Although there are countless wilderness programs and independent schools who prioritize time in nature, these institutions are the outliers rather than the norm. Middle and high schoolers need more than the occasional field trip or mandatory PE class; we need to reevaluate how schools are integrating time outdoors, how the outdoors can be enjoyed through experiential education, and how often students are able to have unstructured time to play, create, and grow.