Learning in the Outdoor Classroom

When we talk about learning in today’s society, the general link is to institutional settings, such as kindergarten’s, school’s or other formal learning environments. This institutionalised education usually takes place indoors and is based on strict curricula where learning goals have to be fulfilled. Learning in a natural setting such as a park or even in the schoolyard, where the emphasis is on experiential learning, seems to be forgotten as being an effective and meaningful way of learning.  


The setting of the traditional school is rather far away from nature, as up to 30 children are in one small room, the children have to stay seated and concentrated on the teacher centred lesson. It is questionable if we can talk about educating children within that system or if we limit the learner’s freedom of thinking? Should students learn to repute or should we educate them into critical thinkers, who recognise a problem and have the ability and creativity to find solutions? Why not bring our children outdoors in order to learn?


The place of learning is a key element of Outdoor Education and should support the subject matter being taught. Authentic learning environments outside the classroom can be created in the forest, the schoolyard or the supermarket to name a few. The choice of places is unlimited within the Outdoor Classroom. The supermarket for instance, which has not been associated as a common place for learning, can teach children in various matters: products and their origin can be analysed and linked to subjects such as biology or geography, as well as cash payments and measurements of products can be linked to mathematics lessons.  


Every subject can be taught outside the traditional classroom and put into the Outdoor Classroom. Teaching and learning outdoors has various benefits for the child's learning outcome and at the same time for their health as well as personal and social development. 


Children outdoors are curious and want to explore, therefore they are more motivated and their concentration increases. Several studies found that learning outdoors increases the memory, because in natural environments all senses are in use. That means more memory channels are active, which leads to better retention and learning. The use of all senses supports our children’s consciousness; to feel, hear, taste, see and smell the forest will teach our children a lot more than watching the pictures in a book.  


Another important aspect while being outdoors is the increased movement of children, an important aspect in today’s childhood where children spend more and more time seated in front of the TV and other devices. Increased movement leads directly to positive health benefits such as better motor skills and lower risk of disease. 


The benefits of Outdoor Education lead to a more positive feeling about learning and therefore better well-being of students. An increased well-being can also be attributed with the fun children have while learning outdoors and with experiential learning methods. Exercises and activities outdoors can be created more playfully than learning from books. There is a close connection between learn and play and even if it is a discussed topic, various pedagogues promote the approach of playing as a rich method in order to learn. 


So why not get started and take our children outside in order to learn?  


As a teacher start going more often to the schoolyard with your class. Schoolyards offer a variety of teaching possibilities and it is just out of your doorstep. Start to plan lessons involving the features of your school’s outdoor areas. For instance, let the children calculate with natural objects they find on the schoolyard; measurements can best be understood by feeling how heavy is that particular stone or how many steps will be 10 metres; let the children describe and write down what they hear and see; conduct a vocabulary treasure hunt in order to teach a foreign language. These are just a few examples out of endless opportunities you will find in the outdoor classroom. Take small steps in your outdoor teaching, start on the schoolyard and then slowly widen the circle of your outdoor teaching. When you feel ready, go and explore the nearby forest or creek with your class. Safety concerns and risk management are important topics going outdoors with a class, however they can be overcome by professional preparations: make yourself familiar with the environment you will bring your class in, make pre-visits and consider bringing along parents to volunteer on the outdoor lessons. Teaching in outdoor environments will not only encourage your pupil to learn, teaching outdoors can become more meaningful for you as a teacher and can be a welcome break from the classroom. 


As a parent, encourage your children to go outside in their playtime or on family trips. Children learn while playing and exploring when they are out with their family. You can teach them many facts about the surrounding nature and nurture a sense of adventure and curiosity.  


Encourage the teacher of your children to make more excursions or use the schoolyard for their lessons, and be a volunteer on school excursions. When you help your child with the homework, try to find practical examples if you explain them something; use natural objects to create a simple multiplication collage out of sticks and flowers in order to train their multiplication; train their writing in mud or sand, as it seems more fun for children than writing in their textbooks. Be creative with your child and use the rich resources nature has on offer to increase their learning and the fun they have while doing that. 

Nature Play QLD offers Forest Learning Workshops to assist educators working with children between 2 and 10 years of age, who want to learn how to implement Forest Learning into their educational centre.

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