Learning in the Outdoors

By Hannah Gartner 

Childhood is a defining time in everyone’s life. The experiences had during this time can stay with and effect a person forever. This is especially true when it comes to connecting to the natural world. When I think of my own connection to nature, I see that it is rooted in the memories I have of hiking, sailing, and exploring during Summers in Maine. The younger someone is when they foster this connection, the deeper it is. However, modern children spend the majority of their time in doors. In the U.S., kids in public school have an average of 27 minutes of recess a day. Their time at home is typically spent inside playing video games and watching TV. Children are simply not spending enough time in the outdoors.

watching-tv

Source: Ars Technica 

This lack of outdoor time is especially harmful to the youngest schoolchildren. Research is developing that shows 3-7 year olds need free play, especially in the outdoors, to develop skills like critical thinking, risk management, and grit. The typical kindergarten includes more reading and math time than play time though. Children don’t get the chance to explore the world with their senses in these schools, but are expected to inherently understand how to use their brains and sit still. This is not where their development is at though. An exploration into the senses is necessary to develop critically thought, and the more a child moves and the stronger they are, meaning they can better hold themselves still for long periods of time. Free play, especially in the outdoors, is not just a nice thing for kids to do but a necessity for their healthy development.

In many parts of Europe this is already understood. Forest preschools have become common. The children who attend these schools spend every day, all day, outside, no matter the weather. They may have wooden shelters to hide from the rain and snow, and good clothing to keep them warm. Their playground is the forest around them – they climb the trees, get muddy in the brooks, and learn through interacting with the ecosystem. In the older grades this concentration on outdoor play continues, with many public schools offering recesses of over an hour in playgrounds that incorporate natural features such as trees and logs. Clearly this is a superior model for getting kids close to nature.

forest-school

The Fiddleheads Forest School in Seattle, WA – Source: New York Times 

Some in the U.S. have realized the importance of the outdoors in childhood development. Forest playgrounds have begun to pop up around the country. Other types of alternative learning schools such as Waldorf and Montessori encourage both the free play and outdoor time children so desperately need. However, this type of learning is currently available only to those who can pay for it, and is confined to a few institutions. To truly make a difference this type of learning must be incorporated into the public school system. Our children are missing out on nature, and it is our job to make sure this deficit ends as soon as possible.

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