Thinking Outside the Classroom: The Benefits Of Outdoor Learning

Kid reading a book outside

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When COVID hit, the National COVID-19 Outdoor Learning Initiative was formed in May 2020. Its purpose was to motivate schools and districts to adopt outdoor learning.

Initially a solution for the pandemic’s distancing restrictions, the initiative is now advocating for outdoor learning as a long-term answer to the systemic inequalities within traditional academic settings. 

What Is Outdoor Learning?

Outdoor learning refers to education that occurs outside of a classroom.

It originally began in the early 1900s in response to tuberculosis rates at the time, as children were particularly vulnerable to the illness. Despite this, Rhode Island doctors wanted children to continue receiving an education.

They launched an open-air school in Providence in 1908, the first of its kind. This resulted in no new tuberculosis cases, and within two years, 65 open-air schools had opened up around the country and internationally. However, the advent of antibiotics meant the last open-air schools closed by 1957 in Providence.

COVID-19 and Outdoor Learning

When the COVID-19 pandemic emerged in early 2020, education systems were once again faced with a conundrum.

How could students still keep up with lessons and receive an education, without spreading the virus? 

The National COVID-19 Outdoor Learning Initiative re-introduced the concept of outdoor learning, which has evidence-based support. Outdoor learning has also been praised by mental health experts, school officials, and educators. 

What to Consider About Outdoor Learning

Studies show that outdoor learning can help students develop a variety of traits. These include the ability to complete tasks, the capacity to self-direct learning, and the ability to build connections with fellow students. These findings were particularly pronounced for students from ethnic minorities and low-income households. 

A systematic review also found that nature-based learning could positively impact students’  well-being and improve their academic performance. Though these findings are promising, further studies are required to determine specific outcomes that occur as a result of outdoor learning. 

What Are the Benefits of Outdoor Learning?

Below, mental health experts, school administrators, and teachers discuss the benefits of outdoor learning.

What Mental Health Experts Have to Say

According to mental health experts, the benefits of outdoor learning are robust. Rebecca Rolland, EdD, a faculty member at Harvard Medical School, notes its ability to provide children with concrete learning opportunities.

“Young children learn words for things they experience, such as colors, smells, and textures. This allows them to learn vocabulary in context, versus through a textbook," says Dr. Rolland.

Furthermore, Dr. Rolland says outdoor learning gives kids “the ability to collaborate and self-structure tasks, which builds their executive function and social skills.” This helps children build language and relate to one another more easily. 

There are also significant emotional benefits of outdoor learning. Taish Malone, LPC, PhD, a counselor Mindpath Health, states that serotonin levels rise when the body is exposed to fresh air.   

Taish Malone, LPC, PhD

[Serotonin produces] feelings of contentment, positive outlook, and self-efficacy, [traits that are] a great asset in these times when children’s mental stability has been tested the most.

— Taish Malone, LPC, PhD

School Administrators Weigh In

Educators and educational professionals also tout outdoor learning’s positive attributes. Cynthia Hoisington, MEd, a project director at Education Development Center and a former teacher, says that outdoor learning can be especially beneficial when teaching the sciences.

Connects Children to Nature

It “connects children to nature and supports a caring disposition toward the environment and the plants and animals that share it with us,” Hoisington says. 

Hoisington also says this can cement abstract concepts such as force and motion, by allowing students to view how objects slide differently on textured surfaces, ramps, and hills—features that don’t occur within the classroom.

Carolyn Hines, a director at the Aspen Country Day School, says that outdoor learning has tremendous implications for students.

Carolyn Hines, School Director

It [outdoor learning] teaches kids to have a growth mindset. It also helps them build confidence and resilience.

— Carolyn Hines, School Director

Outdoor learning can also give children a chance to be “challenged in a nurturing environment,” Hines says. When students have a chance to work collaboratively with classmates and their teachers, they can build a strong sense of community and acquire traits like altruism. These skills can then be carried over into other parts of students’ lives, like at home with their families. 

A Teacher's Thoughts

Outdoor learning can facilitate a teacher’s workday, and can have noticeable impacts on a student’s behavior and ability to focus.

Janet Ecochardt, a certified elementary and special education teacher at Spruce Creek Elementary School in Port Orange, Florida, says this model allowed for more flexible seating. “As long as they are working,” she says, “I let my students find the best spot for themselves—at a picnic table, under a tree, in the grass.”

Being Outside Can Be Exciting and Stimulating

Working outside offers kids more choices in their decisions and can break up the monotony of sitting at the same desk the entire day.

Improved Focus and Behavior

Furthermore, Janet says that she noticed fewer distractions. Her special education students often require limited distractions. “Classrooms are typically rather noisy with a lot of visual stimulation (colorful posters, decorations, other people moving around, windows, doors, etc). A lot of that is eliminated outside. I found that my students were actually able to focus a lot better outdoors than in.”

Finally, Janet’s students demonstrated improved behavior. Since she works in groups, they’re usually seated close together around a small table. This close proximity results in behavior challenges.

Nature Promotes Relaxation

However, outdoor learning allows the kids to have more personal space by spreading out. “They also seem more relaxed,” Janet says. “I observed very few problem behaviors during our time outdoors.” 

Outdoor Learning Resources

To learn more about outdoor learning, visit the National COVID-19 Outdoor Learning Initiative website. Here you will find more information about the research and policies behind this initiative.

3 Sources
Verywell Mind uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Rhode Island Medical Journal. Fighting TB with Fresh-Air Schools.

  2. Slee V, Allan JF. Purposeful Outdoor Learning Empowers Children to Deal with School Transitions. Sports (Basel). 2019 May 31;7(6):134. doi: 10.3390/sports7060134.

  3. Mann J, Gray T, Truong S, Brymer E, Passy R, Ho S, Sahlberg P, Ward K, Bentsen P, Curry C, Cowper R. Getting Out of the Classroom and Into Nature: A Systematic Review of Nature-Specific Outdoor Learning on School Children's Learning and Development. Front Public Health. 2022 May 16;10:877058. doi: 10.3389/fpubh.2022.877058.

By Brina Patel
Brina Patel is a freelance writer from Sacramento, California. Prior to writing full-time, she worked as an applied behavior analysis therapist for children on the autism spectrum. She leverages her own experiences researching emotions, as well as her personal challenges with chronic illness and anxiety, in her storytelling, with the hope of inspiring others to take better charge of their overall wellness and understand themselves on a deeper level.