Learning Outdoors: Is it a viable option?

Draped in black & white monotony, an insipid classroom runs like a prison. The faceless teacher chalks line after line of boring algorithms as the students look on in hopeless disengagement. Suddenly, an object appears. It has energy, vibrancy, and best of all, it’s in color. The students light up as the mystery object uses its magical ability to spread blues, reds, and yellows throughout the room. Not only are the students engaged, but they’re happy.

slide2cIt’s a common advertising approach; you’ve probably seen it done in numerous commercials. Sadly, this feeling of discontent with the classroom is a reality. In an enlightening article on Salon.com titled Outdoor Learning: Education’s Next Revolution, Laura Smith brings  facts into the argument of disengagement in the traditional schooling environment. For example,

“An Indiana State University study found that nearly half of students feel bored everyday, half of students report skipping school at least “once or twice,” and 20 percent consider dropping out entirely.”

So, what’s the solution? Aren’t our current schools tried and tested as the best format for learning? Not so fast, many would argue nature, humanity’s original classroom, is the best fit for engaging students. This philosophy isn’t just for after-school programs, no, nature is quickly becoming the permanent classroom from kindergarten to college.

outdoor-classroom4Like the sounds of a “forest kindergarten?” Its already happening at Cedarsong Nature School on Vashon Island, and, according to the article, ” Kenny (owner) reports that engagement is high and credits the student-led, outdoor curriculum.” With motivation and deep learning as the triumphs of such an environment, there’s no surprise Cedarsong’s enrollment is growing at a rapid pace.

To be honest, I’m not surprised learning outdoors is proving beneficial. When I was a young lad, my favorite thing to do was explore the outdoors. Located behind the soccer field of my elementary, a steady creek ran through a small, albeit poorly maintained, oasis of trees and wildlife. Though it was a rarity, our teachers would engage our science curriculum with the creek. I recall scavenger hunts, leaf pressing, and collecting rain water. As a result, we were energized, curious, and excited to, well, learn.

Always a pioneer for progressive ideas, it’s no surprise California, including schools in Los Angeles, are supporting gardening and outdoor courses. What better place to learn in nature than the Golden Coast? For instance, Deep Springs College in Big Pine, CA, utilizes a “nontraditional curriculum” of learning in nature for its two-year program consisting of  the “three pillars: academics; the labor program in the garden, ranch, or farm; and self-governance.” The students must get up early, work hard, and live by the unpredictability of the natural world, but, as a result, they leave self-sufficient, judicious, and gritty.

resolverThe benefits don’t end there. According to the Salon.com article, “research out of the University of Illinois found that outdoor play can relieve the symptoms of attention deficit disorder.” Further, it’s almost common knowledge now that humans sit too much. With most students stuck in uncomfortable desks for eight hour days, there’s no surprise doctors are alarmed. Need more proof sitting is bad? Read this Huffington Post article disturbingly titled, Sitting is the Smoking of Our Generation.

Most people are aware of the rise of attention-deficit disorder, but what about “nature-deficit disorder?” Do we need nature to develop properly, both creatively and physically? Author Richard Louv would argue yes. In a review of Louv’s book Last Child in the Woods, nature-deficit disorder is explained,

“What children are missing is unstructured play in a natural environment, a creativity uniquely stimulated by the complex and multiple “loose parts” of a wood or canyon or overgrown dirt lot.”

I agree, most of us do suffer from a deficiency of the natural world. Living in a city, it’s difficult to feel you are truly in nature when the endless hum of traffic drowns out the bird songs, but are Outdoor schools the answer? The findings are impressive, and, from personal experience, I agree that nature motivates. But is it all that easy? Not every student is fit for the sometimes physically exhausting life of living on a farm, nor is every student safe to be learning in an unpredictable environment. Also, is it financially feasible? Cedarsong has five acres of forest to explore, where in Downtown Los Angeles or San Diego could inner-city students find that kind of area?

monte_posterFuture classmates?

That being said, motivated educators, parents, tutors, and students are making it happen all over the nation. If they find success in boosting student’s self-esteem, knowledge, and health, then I say, why not? Learning outdoors might not sound so strange in the future.

“One of the main drivers of engagement is this feeling of relevancy, the sense that what you are learning has a relationship to the real world. “

Further Reading:


Nature Primary Program Redefines the Classroom

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