How Outdoor Activities Accelerate Learning

Ginger Abbot

Jul 8, 2019

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At a time when many schools are eradicating recess time, educators and students may wonder whether such decisions are doing more harm than good. Going outdoors benefits learners of all ages — including adults. Time spent in nature not only improves physical and emotional health, it also bolsters performance in the classroom.

How do outdoor activities accelerate the learning process? Most of the answer comes back to one simple fact — human beings are designed biologically to thrive from time spent in nature. Here’s how getting out and moving can improve student performance at any point in their academic careers.

Improved Physical Health

Human beings spend a shocking 93% of their lives indoors. But this isn’t the way we evolved. Humans are designed to run, jump and play in the great outdoors.

Getting outdoors benefits physical health in several ways, and the most obvious way involves more physical exercise. Anything from hitting the playground swings to strolling through the park gets bodies moving.

Exposure to sunlight also helps the body produce vitamin D naturally. Too little vitamin D increases risks of developing cardiovascular disease, asthma, cognitive impairment and certain forms of cancer. While supplements help, the vitamin D produced by the body is superior. Try to get outdoors for at least 10-15 minutes daily.

Fewer Mental Health Disorders

Getting outdoors more may help alleviate symptoms of some anxiety disorders. Researchers in Japan and Holland found spending 20-30 minutes daily outdoors reduced cortisol levels significantly. The body produces cortisol while under stress, and those with anxiety often have elevated levels of this hormone.

Stress can negatively impact academic performance in many ways — any educator or student who has dealt with test anxiety knows this. Going outside or even sitting by a sunny window can decrease these stress levels considerably, so students would do well to sit outside for a bit before test time.

Researchers at Stanford University found spending 20-30 minutes per day outdoors also decreases activity in the center of the brain associated with depression. This could be part of why people often experience a mood boost during the summer months. As depression negatively impacts our motivation to succeed, going outside regularly could also increase our commitment to our studies.

Decreases in Behavioral Issues

Disruptive classroom behavior does more than drive educators crazy. It prevents students from reaching their full potential, as it robs instructional time. A study of nearly 500 families in Hong Kong indicated that when youth spent time in nature, they exhibited less hyperactivity, stress and antisocial behaviors.

Educators wishing to improve behavior would do well to include activities that get learners outdoors whenever possible. Anyone working in education should refrain from refusing recess to students due to poor behavior — because getting out and moving may actually help alleviate the disruptive actions. Older students can strive to make their time outside count more by building in time between classes to stroll campus leisurely.

Increased Ability to Focus

Many students and teachers alike feel cognitive function drops as the day wears on — and in many cases, this proves to be true. However, getting outdoors between bouts of study can help boost cognition and memory.

One study from the University of Michigan revealed that students who walked around an arboretum prior to retaking a memory test performed 20 percent better than classmates who took in city views. This illustrates the importance of adding greenery to public areas, especially in urban landscapes. School administrators would do well to invest in providing more natural-looking school grounds for their students wherever possible.

Greater Environmental Stewardship

According to the National Wildlife Federation, the best way to get adults to care about the environment is by involving them in wild nature activities before the age of 11. With climate change pressing in, raising a generation who espouses eco-friendly ideals is critical. Getting students outdoors when they’re young can make them more likely to seek similar activities as adults, pursue careers in sustainability, and practice sustainable lifestyles to protect the planet we share. With the survival of our own species hanging in the balance, stewardship for the environment is the most important lesson we can teach.

Outdoor Activities Are Critical to Learning

Getting outside provides a host of benefits that can directly or indirectly lead to greater academic success. By prioritizing a connection with nature, students and teachers alike can reach new heights in their studies.

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