Outdoor education during a pandemic

Spending time learning outside is even more important during stressful times.

As we enter the second full year of a pandemic, many things in the world of education have changed. Parents and teachers alike, already concerned with the amount of time kids spend in front of screens, have had to accept the reality of even more time spent inside viewing screens, as learning shifted to a virtual format.

For many, this has been a time of reflection, and for some, a newfound (or renewed) interest in the outdoors has been realized. Teachers, too, can take advantage of the many benefits outdoor experiences can provide for their students.

The benefits of outdoor experiences, especially for children, have been well-documented. Many people understand the physical benefits of being outside: simply being on your feet and moving around, even for brief periods, is a healthy alternative to being sedentary in front of a screen. It’s also a good way to burn off a little excess energy and relieve stress.

Less well-understood, however, are the mental and emotional benefits of being outside. Although there has been much research conducted on these benefits of outdoor experiences, perhaps none makes more sense than the Attention Restoration Theory. Attention Restoration Theory (ART), quite simply, states that spending time in nature can help us combat mental fatigue and improve our ability to concentrate and focus our attention on a task, and combat stress. This makes sense, as we can readily see the appeal of nature on our lives: from nature-themed computer monitor wallpapers, to admiring a colorful sunset, to being drawn to rooms with windows, we routinely have subtle encounters with nature that have a therapeutic effect.

Sometimes educators would like to incorporate some outdoor activities into their teaching, but just don’t know where to begin. The solution here is to start small and try to think of ways you can adjust a lesson to be done outdoors. Luckily, even for those of us who live in a colder environment (like Michigan), benefits from nature can be realized even with brief encounters outdoors. For students who are doing their studies at home, how about a walk around the block during the lunch break, or a designated time to sit outside for a few minutes (depending on supervision) to reflect and observe? Even the simple act of working in a room with a window can dramatically change your mood throughout the day.

Working through simple activities that stimulate the senses is a great way to introduce some nature experiences into learning. For example, a geology lesson could include going on a short walk to collect rocks. A music class could take inspiration from bird songs, an art class from colors and shapes in a forest. Math exercises, such as measurements and proportions, could be conducted on a lawn, further helping students who learn best from visualization. The organization Green Schoolyards America has many ideas and resources for incorporating the outdoors into learning during the pandemic.

As we shift our hopes and attention toward the pandemic’s demise, our ventures into the outdoors don’t have to end. On the contrary, incorporating nature into education can continue to reap benefits for students and teachers alike.

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