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Outdoor Learning: The Ultimate Student Engagement Hack?

On any given day, you might find students from Centreville Elementary attending class at one of the school’s 17 outdoor learning spaces, taking a nature walk, checking on the trout they’ve grown from eggs in a classroom tank, or working with classmates on how they can apply the most recent United Nations’ sustainability goals to their own school community.

Centreville Elementary is not an alternative school; nor is it set in a remote corner of the country. Situated in suburban Fairfax County in Virginia, it’s simply a public elementary school whose long-standing commitment to outdoor learning predates the pandemic—when many schools adopted outdoor learning as a way to return safely to in-person learning. Centreville Elementary has long had two permanent outdoor classrooms and treasured its tradition of participating in Trout in the Classroom, an environmental program that guides schools on how to raise trout and release them into the wild.

Joshua Douds, the school’s principal, started the program at Centreville Elementary when he was a special education teacher under the leadership of then-Principal Dwayne Young.

“He [Young] had all the staff read the book No Child Left Inside. And he challenged teachers to spend an hour outside each day with their students,” said Douds. “There were no stipulations. He just said, ‘Get outside for an hour each day.’ That’s where the whole thing started.”

Young retired in 2017, but his legacy of promoting outdoor education has taken root, and Douds believes the students are better off because of it. “We do a lot of informal surveys with kids. They often say that they love being outdoors and they feel cooped up in classrooms. They feel freer when they’re able to investigate outside,” he said.

Douds emphasizes that learning outdoors is not about simply teaching a math lesson outside: “Outdoor learning is when we’re using the environmental objects to help teach the lessons.”

He cites a math class learning multiplication outdoors, where students might count the weeds in a section of grass and use multiplication to determine how many weeds are in the whole field.

“They’re looking at trees. They’re looking at symmetry. They’re looking at how different patterns appear in nature. They enjoy that. It incorporates nature into what they’re doing. It ties it to real life,” Douds said.

In many ways, outdoor learning stands in sharp contrast to the current educational system: heavy on standardized assessments, long hours spent in classrooms, and curricula that tend to lack direct links to experiential learning. These factors may be contributing to the problems facing K-12 education. Upward of 60 percent of America’s high school students are chronically disengaged at school—meaning they are inattentive, exert little to no effort, do not complete tasks, and claim to be bored—according to the National Research Council.

Further, about 26 percent of K-12 students were chronically absent (missing at least 10 percent of a school year) in 2023, according to a report by the American Enterprise Institute. Amid these woeful statistics, outdoor learning presents a potentially attractive alternative, advocates argue.

Proof that outdoor play and learning reaps benefits

But in most schools in the United States, time outdoors, whether to play or learn, is a minimal part of the day and prone to disruption. Elementary school students spend an average of 25 minutes outdoors for recess daily, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. What’s more, in a 2018 survey of 500 elementary teachers, nearly 90 percent acknowledged decreasing or taking away recess time as punishment for bad behavior. That was the case despite a number of recent studies showing that kids who routinely play outside are “smarter, happier, more attentive, and less anxious” than kids who spend more time indoors.

In a systematic review of 147 studies on nature-specific outdoor learning experiences in K-12 educational settings, researchers sought to determine their effects on students’ personal and social development, well-being, and academic progress. The range of outdoor learning experiences included curricular lessons in the local outdoor setting; working in school or community gardens; and adventure education. “Nature-specific outdoor learning has measurable socio-emotional, academic, and well-being benefits and should be incorporated into every child’s school experience with reference to their local context,” concluded the study authors, reporting in 2022 in the journal Front Public Health.

Overcoming obstacles to outdoor learning

Benefits notwithstanding, outdoor learning in K-12 schools remains the exception rather than the norm. Misperceptions and practical obstacles can get in the way, but advocates say solutions often exist.

Students who aren’t accustomed to being outside for learning, for instance, may associate it with recess and behave accordingly. That problem can be remedied, supporters argue, if outdoor learning becomes routine.

But establishing that routine is less likely in U.S. elementary schools than elsewhere. A 2018 survey of more than 700 elementary teachers from Australia, Canada, the United Kingdom, and the United States found that American teachers were far less likely to take lessons outdoors than teachers from other developed countries; fewer than 30 percent of American teachers surveyed reported taking lessons outdoors even once a month.

Creative solutions can overcome practical obstacles to outdoor learning, such as space and funding limitations. Centreville’s general budget does not support all the school’s outdoor learning initiatives, for instance. But Douds said donations lend additional support, as do grants—something the school’s outdoor learning specialist has become expert at identifying.

Further, not every school’s campus provides an ideal backdrop for outdoor learning. In response, Douds encourages schools to think about how they can use their existing resources. They might grow a “green wall” indoors, for example, if conditions outside don’t permit classes to sit amid flora and fauna.

Strategies for success: leadership ‘champions’ and student-driven initiatives

While the research showcases the benefits of outdoor learning, there’s no specific template on how to make it happen. But the strategies that have allowed outdoor learning to become a permanent part of student life at Centreville Elementary, recently recognized as one of the Top Ten Green Schools in the nation, offer some sound ideas.

As Douds noted, having a principal who strongly encouraged teachers to find ways to incorporate the outdoors into every school day made it not only acceptable but desirable to take learning outside. That support has extended throughout the district.

In 2019, the Fairfax County governing board and the county school board formed the Joint Environmental Task Force, with an eye toward increasing student access to environmental stewardship opportunities and outdoor learning experiences. The Fairfax County school district expanded its commitment to outdoor learning by hiring outdoor learning specialists, or Get2Green leaders, at every one of its schools, beginning this school year.

Giving students choices and prominent roles in their learning tends to make them more invested in it. And, while Centreville acts on its commitment to exposing every student to outdoor learning, the school offers additional opportunities for students to get even more involved in related sustainability learning projects.

Centreville’s Green Team is a prime example. Student members get to school 45 minutes early once a week and, under the guidance of a staff member, review current U.N. Sustainability Goals, propose adopting one of them for their school community, and then develop a proposal on how to apply it to their campus, Douds explained. Their efforts have resulted in the placement of bluebird boxes on campus, and they’re currently working on a project in which they collect food not consumed at the school cafeteria and deliver it to a local food pantry or homeless shelter.

Douds emphasized the student-driven nature of initiatives like the school’s Green Team, citing examples that include student members proactively scheduling meetings with him to discuss the projects they’re advocating. “It’s giving these kids a voice. And that is where true learning and advocacy come from,” said Douds. “It’s pretty impressive to see.”

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