#EducationIsOpen Blog

More than social distance – Using the outdoors to boost academic performance

boy-with-compass-narrow-eioMany states have started to put forward plans and guidelines to reopen school buildings in the fall.  A few, such as Georgia and Florida, briefly mention utilizing outdoor spaces, a tactic that’s been widely embraced by parents, thought leaders, and many European countries[1]. Typically, these advocates focus on the health benefits of outdoor spaces, such as:  more space for physical distancing, fewer shared surfaces, and more time for kids to move around and breathe fresh air.

However, because experts predict that COVID-19 school closures will dramatically impact academic achievement[2], to ensure that school districts in the U.S. invest some of their limited resources in outdoor learning, it is critical to highlight the academic and developmental benefits, not just the safety benefits, of time outside.  By activating campuses’ existing outdoor spaces for more effective hands-on learning, districts can support both health and academic objectives in a relatively convenient and inexpensive way.

Outdoor learning improves academic performance
The so-called COVID slide makes it imperative that teachers fill every minute with as much learning as possible. But simply increasing the pace of standard instructional methods backfires when students miss a key point, disengage with the material, and fall behind. However, studies show that outdoor, experiential lessons accelerate learning by increasing the comprehension and retention of concepts long-term[3].   As an added benefit, rather than feeling rushed and overloaded, students and teachers alike enjoy more holistic and authentic real-world learning experiences that happen easily outdoors, increasing both student and teacher engagement.

Outdoor experiences help teachers embed social emotional skills into the school day
With districts looking at more remote and blended learning options, and time for reducing extra-curriculars, many people are concerned that students won’t be able to build critical skills, such as self-direction and persistence, communication, critical-thinking, and collaboration, all 21st Century skills that are critical to success in school and the workplace.  But outdoor learning experiences blend social emotional skills development with academic learning. With lessons centered on student’s own real-world experiences, students become more autonomous learners, they understand their strengths and limitations better, and develop a well-grounded sense of confidence and optimism.  As self-management improves, students can build their ability to focus, motivate themselves, and work toward their academic goals.  Shared real-world experiences during cross-curricular lessons also facilitate communication and collaboration for student teams and promote critical thinking[4].

Outdoor learning makes science a part of every school day.
Most elementary schools prioritize Literacy and Math instruction, leaving on average only 18 minutes a day for Science[5]. And that was before COVID-19, so those numbers are unlikely to have improved.  But early Science education is critical to helping students build a pathway to rewarding STEM careers and others that require a science mindset.[6]  COVID-19 will impact the job market long-term and keeping viable career pathways open for students should be a priority for schools.  To keep real and rewarding job opportunities on students’ horizons, elementary teachers can use outdoor spaces to lead cross-curricular lessons that increase students’ understanding of Science content and practice while still achieving Math and Literacy goals.  Hands-on real-world Science lessons also allow student to see themselves in a STEM career, making that workforce pipeline more diverse and inclusive.

To achieve these academic benefits, in addition to improving school campuses with simple outdoor classroom structures (seating, whiteboards etc.), districts must provide teachers with effective coaching on how to use the outdoors itself as an instructional tool.  Just as districts helped teachers adapt to remote learning environments by investing in Zoom and Google Classroom[7] trainings, they need to invest in professional learning on new pedagogical approaches, such as experiential outdoor learning, to help teachers close the achievement gaps this crisis has exacerbated. Luckily, in addition to helping districts react to this immediate crisis, investments in improving teaching practice now will continue to produce academic results no matter what school looks like in the future.

By focusing more on the academic benefits of outdoor instruction, the parents, experts, and government officials working to help school districts through this crisis can effect real change.  Convincing districts to invest in professional development that empowers teachers to use outdoor spaces to boost Math, Literacy, Science, social emotional, and 21st Century job skills will  inspire school leaders to make the shift to more effective instructional practices, and help all students continue to learn and grow despite the crisis.

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[1] “5 radical schooling ideas for an uncertain fall and beyond,” NPR ; “What needs to change inside school buildings,” Education Week ; “Why kids shouldn’t be forced to sit at desks all day when schools reopen,” The Washington Post ;  “If a spike in Covid-19 cases does not follow the mass demonstrations, it should change the calculus for reopening schools,” The Fordham Institute;  “Scotland eyes outdoor learning as model for reopening of schools,” The Guardian; “With most campuses closed, Forest School enjoys its moment in the woods,” The Washington Post  

2 Dorn, E., Hancock, B., Sarakatsannis, J. and Viruleg, E., 2020. COVID-19 And Student Learning In The United States: The Hurt Could Last A Lifetime. [online] McKinsey & Company. Available at: https://www.mckinsey.com/industries/public-sector/our-insights/covid-19-and-student-learning-in-the-united-states-the-hurt-could-last-a-lifetime.

3 Sparks, S., 2019. Students Learn More From Inquiry-Based Teaching, International Study Finds. [online] Education Week. Available at: https://www.edweek.org/ew/articles/2019/10/09/students-learn-more-from-inquiry-based-teaching-international.html?cmp=eml-enl-cco-news1-rm&M=58962730&U=&UUID=98267264dc7b20bfa0cc903a10cb3e46.

4 Cooper, G. (1996). The role of outdoor education in education for the 21st Century. Journal of Outdoor and Environmental Education 1, 10–14.

5 Plumley, C. L. (2019). 2018 NSSME+: Status of elementary school science. Chapel Hill, NC: Horizon Research, Inc.

6 Wyss, V., Heulskamp, D., & Siebert, C. (2012). Increasing middle school student interest in STEM careers with videos of scientists. International Journal Of Environmental & Science Education7(4), 501-522.

7 Tanner, N. (2020). ‘Classroom to Cloud’: What happened when coronavirus forced my kid’s school to go online. Retrieved 4 June 2020, from https://www.geekwire.com/2020/classroom-cloud-happened-coronavirus-forced-kids-school-go-online/

[1]5 radical schooling ideas for an uncertain fall and beyond,”NPR ; “What needs to change inside school buildings,” Education Week ; “Why kids shouldn’t be forced to sit at desks all day when schools reopen,” The Washington Post ;  “If a spike in Covid-19 cases does not follow the mass demonstrations, it should change the calculus for reopening schools,”The Fordham Institute

[2] Dorn, E., Hancock, B., Sarakatsannis, J. and Viruleg, E., 2020. COVID-19 And Student Learning In The United States: The Hurt Could Last A Lifetime. [online] McKinsey & Company. Available at: https://www.mckinsey.com/industries/public-sector/our-insights/covid-19-and-student-learning-in-the-united-states-the-hurt-could-last-a-lifetime.

[3] Sparks, S., 2019. Students Learn More From Inquiry-Based Teaching, International Study Finds. [online] Education Week. Available at: https://www.edweek.org/ew/articles/2019/10/09/students-learn-more-from-inquiry-based-teaching-international.html?cmp=eml-enl-cco-news1-rm&M=58962730&U=&UUID=98267264dc7b20bfa0cc903a10cb3e46.

[4] Cooper, G. (1996). The role of outdoor education in education for the 21st Century. Journal of Outdoor and Environmental Education 1, 10–14.

[5] Plumley, C. L. (2019). 2018 NSSME+: Status of elementary school science. Chapel Hill, NC: Horizon Research, Inc.

[6] Wyss, V., Heulskamp, D., & Siebert, C. (2012). Increasing middle school student interest in STEM careers with videos of scientists. International Journal Of Environmental & Science Education7(4), 501-522.

[7] Tanner, N. (2020). ‘Classroom to Cloud’: What happened when coronavirus forced my kid’s school to go online. Retrieved 4 June 2020, from https://www.geekwire.com/2020/classroom-cloud-happened-coronavirus-forced-kids-school-go-online/

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Out Teach, formerly REAL School Gardens, provides professional development for elementary school teachers. Out Teach prepares them to use school gardens, outdoor classrooms, and green schoolyards to improve instruction through three-dimensional project-based learning, and outdoor experiential inquiry-based education. Professional learning with Out Teach improves hands-on science and STEM education through instructional coaching and digital education resources and improves 21st Century skills.