The Greatest Classroom

Research has shown that spending time outdoors increases not only physical well-being, but academic achievement. Here are some tips for outdoor activities.

Learning July 20, 2020

“Children who have opportunities to garden, care for animals, and watch the wonders of nature in beautiful settings, experience both educational and spiritual advantages. Physical health improves in nature’s pristine environment.”  Ministry of Healing, p. 264

It was the most perfect fall day. Students from an Idaho middle school were knee deep in the Boise River. The river was their classroom. The middle schoolers were collaborating, experimenting, observing, communicating, and thinking critically. Interestingly, as they left the river to work on their scientific journals, there was not one screen in sight and there was a lot of learning going on.

So why does so much of our instruction time take place indoors in an artificial environment when we were created to live in a garden? Why have so many school systems dramatically reduced or eliminated outdoor time?

Often it is in response to standardized testing data or national anxiety about falling behind other countries in math and science. We increase indoor instructional hours to improve student achievement (Frenette, 2015; Reily, 2017; Riser-Kositsky, 2018). However, in 2010, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDCP) found that there is substantial evidence that physical activity can improve academic achievement. In addition, two of the world’s highest academic achievers report significant higher time for outdoor time (Finland, 75 minutes per day and New Zealand, 80 minutes per day). Let’s explore four important benefits of outdoor instruction.


Experts in health, cognition and psychology have consistently found that time outdoors improves health outcomes, achievement and motivation. The American Academy of Pediatrics (2013) and CDCP (2010) found positive associations between time outdoors and academic performance as well as improving nutrition and reducing childhood obesity and diabetes. Researchers (Jones, Bailey, & Jacob, 2014) also found that students who spent time outdoors had strong attention, focus and motivation resulting in less disruption during instruction time and more focus in following directions.


The physical benefits of outdoor time include improved fitness and opportunities to socialize. Students can cooperate, create joint goals, enjoy companionship and are more likely to develop empathy. In addition, spending time in nature engages children and makes them less anxious, reduces stress, fatigue, and increases memory performance (Bratman, 2015; Harvard Health, 2018).


Experts (Ginsburg, 2007; Pellegrini, Dupuis & Smith, 2007) cite the importance of outdoor time to allow children time to experiment, solve problems, think creatively, cooperate with others and gain a deeper knowledge of the natural world.


Ballew and Omoto (2018) found that nature produces a positive emotion they described as inspiring awe, a feeling similar to wonder that leads to pro social behavior.


  • Be creative—outdoor reading groups, dramatization, world cup soccer tournaments to teach geography, collages, model making, rocket launching, storytelling and role playing.
  • Maximize your recess time with unstructured experiences.
  • Create a fitness circuit the students design, time them and graph the results.
  • Set up an outdoor classroom—this can be as simple as a blanket and pillows on the grass, tree stumps, or outdoor bean bags.
  • Design STEM lessons for outdoors—micro-organisms in the stream, healthy waterways, living things, archeological digs, identify local plants and animals, collect and categorize from nature, visit nature centers, clean up local parks and roadways, teach stewardship of the environment as well as *By Design* outdoor labs.
  • Create a class garden, sell the produce, donate produce to local food banks, use the produce in the school cafeteria, teach life cycles, environmentalism, composting and teach the children to cook with plant-based recipes.
  • Lacquer a big table with outdoor paint and use the space for messy experiments, art, and many other projects.

What are you waiting for? Open the door to a world of learning that our master teacher and creator designed especially for our children. Head out to the greatest classroom of all—the great outdoors!


Dr. Leisa is the Director of Elementary Education at the North American Division. She has taught on the east and west coasts of the U.S, both in and out of the Adventist education system, and in Australia and New Zealand. She has also spent a considerable part of her career teaching at universities, including lecturing in the education departments at the University of Maryland, Washington Adventist University and Macquarie University, a large state university in Sydney, Australia, with over 40,000 students. Leisa holds a PhD in Curriculum and Instruction from the University of Maryland, an MA in Education from California State University and a Diploma in Education from Avondale College.


  • | August 12, 2020 at 2:20 am

    Beautiful lesson here that taechers need to emmulate and put into practice

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