Guest Post By Sandi Schwartz
Sandi Schwartz is an author, journalist, and mother of two. She has written extensively about parenting, wellness, and environmental issues. Her new book, Finding Ecohappiness: Fun Nature Activities to Help Your Kids Feel Happier and Calmer, comes out in the spring. Learn more at www.ecohappinessproject.com.
How often do you take your kids outside for their lessons? While children are typically spending less time outdoors, more research has come out supporting why nature is so beneficial to their health and education. A recent study from the University of Illinois found that students who spend a class session outside in a natural setting are more engaged and less distracted later in the school day than those who do not go outside. In fact, instructors were able to teach uninterrupted for almost twice as long after the outdoor lesson than after an indoor lesson since the children stayed more engaged and focused. This can certainly apply to homeschooling as well.
Here are three key benefits of taking lessons outdoors that can enhance children’s ability to learn and retain information.
Stress can interfere with learning, so anything that reduce stress likely enhances the educational experience. Spending time outside reduces stress, and kids need to feel relaxed to grasp what they are learning. There are hundreds of studies confirming how nature is calming, including a popular report that found how spending at least 120 minutes a week in nature is linked to feeling happier and calmer. Nature provides kids with a soothing sensory experience to help get them excited about learning, including colors, patterns, textures, scents, and sounds. Listening to birds chirping, breathing in the fresh air, observing the vibrant colors, and smelling fragrant flowers and plants are just some examples of how nature can calm kids while they are learning outdoors.
Improves Focus and Motivation
Spending time outside also helps improve attention and focus. Nature triggers a state known as “soft fascination,” which is a calm, meditative feeling we get when our mind is completely at ease and we are taking in scenery. This theory suggests that a child’s mental muscle is able to rest, which may help them focus better when learning. Also, students retain more after lessons outside than after similar lessons indoors. Attention is an important part of student engagement, and there is a theory suggesting that natural environments lead to a sense of feeling calm, rested, and refreshed so kids can focus more on learning.
Kids also need to be motivated to learn. Nature-based learning has been tied to high levels of engagement and enjoyment. Children prefer and enjoy lessons outdoors over lessons indoors, and there is some evidence showing that outdoor learning encourages greater interest in school and learning overall.
Spending time outside in a natural environmental also stimulates creativity in kids, and creativity is really important to education. When children grow up with opportunities to be creative, they can develop a number of key skills that will help them succeed throughout their lives, such as being good problem solvers, building patience and perseverance, having flexibility, and building confidence.
How does nature lead to more creativity? It has the ability to evoke a creative way of thinking by making us more curious, open-minded, and imaginative. A breakthrough study in 2012 was the first to show that time outdoors in nature leads to increased creativity and problem-solving ability. About sixty individuals were given several tests to measure creative thinking; half took the test before a backpacking trip in the wilderness and the other half took the test a few days into their trip. As it turns out, those who took the creativity test during their time outdoors had a fifty percent boost in creativity and problem-solving!
There are several reasons why nature increases our creativity. First, being outside helps restore our attention, which improves concentration and allows for more curiosity and creativity. Basically, outside time helps calm an over-stimulated brain and improve our ability to think deeply and come up with new ideas. Nature also gives us a sense of awe about the world around us. Awe is a powerful emotion that plays a vital role in creativity and well-being. Nature also activates the imagination network in our brain. When our brain quiets down, such as when we are relaxing in nature, the its default mode takes over. This is a more imaginative state when our mind begins to wander to memories, ideas, and emotions. In essence, when our brain is able to rest, we can experience more insights and creativity.
Ideas for Outdoor Learning
There are so many ways to weave outdoor time into school time. Take your kids outside for art projects, such as painting or drawing a nature scene or putting together a collage of natural items like leaves, sticks, and flowers. Enhance their lessons by visiting outdoor places like nature centers, zoos, gardens, and farms to see firsthand what they are studying. Another idea is to participate in citizen science projects focused on nature. Citizen science involves volunteering to collect scientific data and is a way for kids to gain science experience and directly help the scientific community. You might be collecting data like counting the number of a certain type of bird you see in your neighborhood or taking pictures and submitting them through an app like iNaturalist. These projects are a wonderful way for children to connect with nature while learning.
To discover the best ways for your kids to connect to nature, take the Nature Habit Quiz.