Outdoor Learning Boosts Student Engagement


Teachers are always on the lookout for ways to improve student engagement, and learners themselves can benefit from trying out different strategies. A new study, published in Frontiers in Psychology, has found that young students are twice as engaged and attentive in class following an outdoor learning session. The researchers suggest that including more nature in formal education could boost overall concentration, thereby improving academic performance, and the study also shows promise for independent learners seeking their own solutions to problems surrounding focus and sustained interest.

While scientists have known for some time that nature benefits the brain in a range of ways, from improving creativity to reducing stress, they haven’t as of yet demonstrated a clear connection between engagement levels and outdoor learning. Teachers, for their part, also tend to hesitate when it comes to holding outdoor lessons, worrying that students might get overexcited and distracted by what’s going on around them, or that once they return to an indoor setting they won’t be able to concentrate on the material at hand. This study lays the foundation for that connection and shows that teachers have nothing to worry about.

For the study, the researchers spent ten weeks observing third grade students at a school in the Midwestern U.S., asking two different teachers–one hopeful and one skeptical–to hold one lesson a week outdoors and a similar lesson indoors. The outdoor learning setting was a grassy spot with a view of a wooded area, just outside the school. After each outdoor or indoor lesson, the researchers measured how engaged the students were, counting “the number of times the teacher needed to redirect the attention of distracted students back to their schoolwork during the observation, using phrases such as ‘sit down’ and ‘you need to be working.'” An outside observer also examined photos taken of the class over this ten-week period and scored the level of class engagement, without knowing whether the photos were taken after an indoor or outdoor lesson. The teachers scored perceived engagement levels as well.

“We wanted to see if we could put the nature effect to work in a school setting,” says Ming Kuo, who led the study along with her colleagues at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. “If you took a bunch of squirmy third-graders outdoors for lessons, would they show a benefit of having a lesson in nature, or would they just be bouncing off the walls afterward?”

Results showed that students were more engaged after the outdoor learning sessions.

“Far from leaving students too keyed up to concentrate afterward,” Kuo says, “lessons in nature actually leave students more able to engage in the next lesson, even as students are also learning the material at hand.”

Kuo says this “nature effect” allowed instructors to teach for significantly longer during a subsequent indoor lesson.

“Our teachers were able to teach uninterrupted for almost twice as long at a time after the outdoor lesson,” Kuo says, “and we saw the nature effect with our skeptical teacher as well.”

Further research is planned to test the effect in other schools and for teachers of different experience levels. For the moment, regular outdoor learning sessions appear to be an inexpensive and convenient way for schools to boost student engagement and academic performance. That’s one more very good reason (as if we needed another) to protect the natural world.


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Saga Briggs is Managing Editor of InformED. You can follow her on Google+ or @sagamilena

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