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How outdoor learning benefits kids

Want your kid to pay more attention in school, feel less stress, and step up his game in classroom activities?

Mother Nature has the answer.

A new study from researchers at the University of Illinois in Urbana-Champaign indicates kids learn better indoors after they engage in outdoor lessons. The nature effect, investigators say, slashes stress, boosts attention, and increases engagement and motivation in school-age children.

In fact, kids are more engaged in in-class learning immediately after an outdoor lesson than if they received the same lesson in the classroom, according to researchers.

And just as fascinating: in the study, kids’ focus and attention remained high indoors even with different teachers, at different times of the day, in different seasons, and even when the material changed from science outside to indoor math and reading.

Kids’ attention was measured by teacher assessments, a record of the number of times teachers had to redirect the children, and ratings by an observer who was not aware of the study’s objective.

Kids + Nature = Better Behavior

In the past, research has suggested that kids may be more interested in learning in general when teaching occurs in an outdoor setting.

“We wanted to see if we could put the ‘nature effect’ to work in a school setting,” says Ming Kuo, the lead researcher on the study. “If you took a bunch of squirmy third-graders outdoors for lessons, would they show a benefit? Or would they be bouncing off the walls afterward?”

Kuo’s research paid off. The bump in attention in the third-grade children who participated in the study was significant.

“Our teachers were able to teach uninterrupted for almost twice as long at a time after the outdoor lessons,” says Kuo. They spent a lot less time saying “Sit down” and “You need to be working,” because students were more engaged in what they were learning.

Although the study did not address how nature inspires changes, it may dispel some reservations about outdoor education.

First, teachers taught real lessons in the fresh-air setting. Time outside was not a free-for-all for the study’s students.

Also, the fresh-air setting was not part of a nature reserve, community park, or a faraway forest. It was a simple patch of grass near the building that the students walked to, so replication is doable.

Even if your child’s teacher doesn’t regularly shuttle her students outdoors for lessons, there are ways that you can help your child benefit from nature.

  • Walk to school. This way, kids start their day with a nature boost. If commuting on foot isn’t possible, find out if your child can spend a little time playing outside at school in between drop-off and the first bell.
  • Defend recess. Just like adults, kids need breaks throughout their day. Recess is a time for physical activity, socializing, and—you guessed it—a little nature therapy. If administrators are cutting back on recess time due to academic pressures, fight back; the same goes for teachers withholding recess as punishment. Both of these are short sighted, since kids perform and behave better when they spend time outdoors.
  • Take homework outside. Why not change it up a bit when your child has a math worksheet or reading log to complete? She just might finish faster (and retain more knowledge) if she’s breathing fresh air.
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