outdoor education

The Importance of Outdoor Education

It’s Saturday afternoon, and my sons are playing video games with their friends and my daughter is watching a movie. It’s minus seven degrees outside, and I know their time outside this weekend will be limited to how long they can tolerate the cold, and then indoor activities will take over the rest of the weekend hours. I worry that they aren’t spending enough time outside during the colder months, especially during the school week when they spend about seven hours a day at school and then another hour or more on homework each night, after any extra-curricular activities they have. They are in elementary school and they have the weekly desk hours of adult office workers. Having a developed outdoor education is important for all children, especially with those long school days.

In 2010, a National Wildlife Federation study found that kids were spending an average of 7 hours and 38 minutes a day (53 hours a week) inside using electronic media and outdoor time was measured in minutes. In 2012, Natural Resources Defense Council scientist Sylvia Fallon wrote that children were spending an average of 50 percent less time outdoors than 20 years earlier. Schools report that disengagement is a big obstacle to learning, but the problem is exacerbated as schools continue to pile on the work, forcing kids to sit still even longer. Now, studies are showing that it’s actually detrimental to your health to spend that much time sitting every day. Some programs are solving several problems at once, offering kids a way to learn outdoors so they can get up, move around, and learn about different subjects in a real world environment.

The NWF study reported “that outdoor education, greener school grounds and more outdoor play time in natural settings”:

  • Use all of a child’s skills, from math and science to communication
  • Help low-income students perform better in school
  • Increase motivation to learn
  • Vastly improve classroom behavior
  • Develop better concentration skills and offset attention deficit problems
  • Help kids learn across all subjects and solve real-world problems
  • Encourage kids to stay in school and not drop out
  • Improve scores in math, science, reading and social studies
  • Improve scores on standardized tests
  • Improve performance on higher education entrance exams

Daycare and preschools with outdoor learning programs are springing up nationwide, although you will probably see more of them in already outdoors-forward areas. This post lists 12 in the Seattle area alone. For older kids, there are increasing options, too. In many places, schools have implemented school garden programs, turning a patch of unused school grounds into a functional garden which may or may not feed the school, but can be used in numerous lessons. The National Farm to School Network offers information and regional consultants for assistance.

Not impressed with your child learning about gardening? It’s more than that. At Woodward Elementary, in Kalamazoo, Michigan, kids learn to count flowers or fish in the pond, they learn to measure between plants and about pollination by standing beneath the crabapple tree in the spring and watching the bees work. Other lessons are tied to literacy, exercise kids’ observation skills, practice spelling and, above all, keep the kids moving and engaged. Another anecdotal benefit: educators in garden-based programs believe that kids developed healthier eating habits after working with the food in the gardens.

Other programs include the well-established Outward Bound and a growing number of specialized schools all over the country that have embraced outdoor, experiential learning. There might even be some in your area that you never knew about. I found out that you can go to school at the zoo in my town (for sixth grade only) and it’s a nationally recognized program.

If outdoor learning is in short supply where you live, getting your kids outside at an early age is still important, according to Fallon. It helps your kids not only learn more about our environment, but develop an appreciation for it. If your child can’t experience outdoor learning at school, you might want to look for nature center programs or camps in your area where your child can still get a similar experience. And, of course, there’s always your own ingenuity in dreaming up things for your kids to do outside.

My kids love to search for creepy crawlies and store them in bug houses to observe. We talk about what they found, what it eats and where it lives before we let it go. Once we made the mistake of putting a caterpillar in with a praying mantis (ostensibly to keep it company) and we got a real-world example of what praying mantises eat when the caterpillar ended up as dinner. My son, who was five, was bug-eyed at first, but then thought the whole thing was really interesting.

You can go on scavenger hikes where they are tasked to find different colored flowers or types of plants. You can also take photos of everything they find to make a photo album later of your outing.

For smaller children, you could go on a sensory hike. Point out all the different sounds, colors and textures you encounter (water flowing in a stream, colored plants, snow crunching underfoot, rough bark on your skin).

There is no shortage of ideas for outdoor experiences and learning. So get up and get out – that’s the first step. I am searching for my mittens now. We might have time for a short hike before dinner, after I download an application for zoo school.

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