The benefits of outdoor classrooms

Students are happier and learn better when they spend time outdoors, research shows. A webinar sponsored by NSBA’s National Affiliate programs on Oct. 12 gave examples of how schools, even in the most urban settings, can use outdoor areas as hands-on laboratories.

Laurie Harmon, an assistant professor in the department of parks, recreation, and leisure studies at George Mason University, showed data that says children’s and teens’ lives are too structured, and getting outdoors helps them unwind, de-stress, and regain focus. One study showed that students ages 6 to 12 cited “too much schoolwork” and “not enough time” as main factors for not going outside.

Already, technology is taking up a larger amount of young people’s time — one study showed that teenagers spend 7.5 hours using some sort of media and one-third of that time multitasking, double the time just five years ago, Harmon said. It’s important, she added, that schools find ways to engage students through outdoor learning activities.

“While parents are the number one influencer, school programs also have an influence, and schools have room to be more influential,” she said.

Barnard Elementary School in Washington, D.C., is an example of school that has successfully integrated outdoor activities into its curriculum. Principal Grace Reid said that she applied for grants to help teachers make outdoor education a part of their lesson plans.

When she realized that students lacked knowledge about where their food came from, she helped build an herb and vegetable garden.

“Many children have never seen vegetables or fruit grow, and they have no idea where they come from,” Reid said. “The gardens have provided experiences for authentic learning.”

Students are now much more willing to try new foods and choose healthy options in the school cafeteria, which uses vegetables harvested from the garden.

Another panelist, Michael Rizo, a program specialist with the U.S. Forest Service, gave tips for school officials looking for ways to use outdoor spaces to enhance students’ learning and overall educational experiences.

“You definitely have to plan a location,” taking into account sunlight, proximity to a source of water, and safety, he said.

“And when focusing on schools, first and foremost, you need a dedicated teacher, ideally a team of teachers,” he added. Support from the school principal and parents is also critical.

He recommended placing signs to explain the workings of the garden or outdoor area for the community, particularly if it is off-season or a habitat is designed to look “weedy.”

What doesn’t work, Rizo said, are after-school programs and those not clearly tied to the school’s day-to-day activities or supported by school leaders and teachers.

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