Quirks and Quarks·Bob McDonald's blog

How to improve education: move the classroom outdoors

Exposing children to nature while they learn can benefit their learning, development, and sense of environmental stewardship.

Exposing children to nature while they learn can benefit their learning and development

Move classrooms outside for increased academic performance. (sasint/Pixabay)

When nature is used as a classroom, it has a positive effect on learning among children in at least eight different ways, according to a new survey of the research.

Scientists suggest exposing students to natural environments goes beyond making them appreciate life on the planet — it improves a child's ability to learn and can even improve grades, especially in disadvantaged children. 

The American survey collected peer-reviewed studies that examined the learning outcomes of students who had been taken out of the classroom to not only go on wilderness backpacking hikes, or visit a wetland or a nature centre, but who also held traditional classes in outdoor settings. Among the outcomes, the experiences boosted academic learning, improved personal development and heightened a sense of environmental stewardship.

The many benefits to taking the class outdoors

Any teacher will tell you there are days when getting kids to stay in their seats and pay attention is a struggle, which makes sense when you consider that from the day they learn to walk, young children love to run around and chase each other. Sitting quietly in rows, sometimes in rooms with no windows, goes against their natural tendencies. Removing those walls and taking a walk in the woods encourages exploration, and improves self discipline, including those with ADHD and learning difficulties.

Children on a field trip exploring nature and searching for wildlife in a dipping pond. (Peter Macdiarmid/Getty Images for Halcyon Gallery)

The positive effects of nature on the learning experience goes beyond a simple field trip. Experiments have shown that even teaching through traditional ways in an outdoor setting leads to improvements in retention. And this happens across many different subject areas — not just biology or the environment, but math as well — and is effective across a diverse student population.

The outdoor environment enhances learning in subtle ways. Just being in a forest taking a simple walk in the woods produces a sense of tranquility, and this calming effect relieves stress in students and enables them to focus more closely on their work. Time spent outdoors increases physical activity and improves fitness, but it also provides better motivation to learn and reduces chronic absenteeism.

Teaching outdoors helps children learn through discovery

Schools spend a great deal of money on equipment, whether it be for scientific experiments or learning activities, but these can be highly structured, where everyone learns the same task. In an outdoor setting, the young people naturally engage in what the scientists call "loose parts play," where the kids find their own equipment using sticks and stones, rocks, dirt and bugs to engage with each other, co-operate more and learn through discovery.

Learning in a classroom with a view of nature is better than a class looking out onto a parking lot. (Jeff Pachoud/AFP/Getty Images)

Of course, not all schools have a forest nearby. Nor can they afford to make too many bus trips to the country. But scientists suggest that school yards could be made a lot more green, while living walls and plant-filled atriums can be included in the design of school buildings. Even having windows that face a natural scene have been shown to improve performance over those that face asphalt and concrete lots.

We hear more and more about how children are nature deprived. The combination of urban living, time spent on devices and fearful parents is not only robbing children of an appreciation of the amazing diversity of life on this planet, it is missing an opportunity to reap the benefits nature can provide to the mind.


Bob McDonald is the host of CBC Radio's award-winning weekly science program, Quirks & Quarks. He is also a science commentator for CBC News Network and CBC-TV's The National. He has received 12 honorary degrees and is an Officer of the Order of Canada.