Benefits of Outdoor Education, Part 1: Brain Function

North American November 3, 2022

Many people today believe that education needs to take place inside a specific structure during a set number of hours. Before there were formally structured school buildings and hours, though, there were still teachers, students, and learning. People learned wherever they were. As Engström notes, “The world was their classroom, the curriculum was dictated by seasonal change, and the grades were strictly pass/fail.” Luckily, this way of education, including taking education outdoors, has been emerging once more in our society, and it has many benefits for our students. 

Outdoor education involves having learning experiences in the natural world which transcend school boundaries. Learning can be structured or unstructured. According to Priest, outdoor education is “an experiential process of learning by doing, which takes place primarily through exposure to the out-of-doors.” Exposure to nature is a stepping stone into outdoor exploration, nature study, and discovery. 

Outdoor education enriches brain development, improves school performance, promotes physical health and motor development, fosters social skills and self-efficacy, stimulates curiosity, imagination, and sense of wonder, helps develop positive civic attitudes and behaviors, increases attention span and sparks joy and confidence. Outdoor education is vital for children’s well-being, mental and emotional health, spiritual connection, and learning. 

Brain Development and Function

Using the outdoors as the classroom and nature elements as the textbook provides a rich environment that supports the brain’s learning. Rivkin points out that spending time in nature provides richness and novelty that stimulates brain development and function, while Louv notes that it helps restore the brain’s ability to process information. In addition, sustained time outdoors has been shown by Atchley, Strayer, and Atchley to enhance higher-order cognitive skills. More time in nature leads to improvement in skills such as understanding main ideas, problem-solving, critical thinking, application, synthesizing, and creativity. For example, Oppezzo and Schwartz found that walking boosts creativity, and Berto found that viewing nature photographs can improve attention spans and promote recovery from mental fatigue, so taking a walk together or showing students landscape pictures could help students recover when they experience overload and prepare to refocus on the task at hand. 

Physical activity is also helpful for brain development, and outdoor spaces provide more opportunities for movement. Jimenez notes that movement initiates and supports mental processes such as storing, consolidating, and retrieving information. As Hannaford says, “Learning, thought, creativity and intelligence are not processes of the brain alone, but of the whole body.” 

Brain development progresses through physical activity patterns that start when the child is born. The more complex, unstructured, and frequent the physical activity is, the better it is for brain development. Children learn best when concepts are introduced using physical activities, and outdoor learning often includes physical activities such as jumping, climbing, digging, building, lifting, and raking. Developing a skill starts with our understanding of the world, which we define through our senses, emotions, and movement. Hannaford summarizes this well, saying that the more we utilize our physical and intellectual systems together, the more the combined system will grow. Using our mind and body together helps to build brain tissue.

Author

Ivonne Bisonó was born in New York and raised on the island of Puerto Rico. She graduated from the University of Puerto Rico with a Bachelor’s degree in Elementary Education. Ivonne is an SDA multigrade teacher in Illinois and currently pursuing a Master's degree in Outdoor Education at Southern University. She enjoys spending time outdoors with her family.

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