The Need to be Outside – A Growing Evidence Base
Since joining the profession in 2004, much has been written about taking learning outdoors. Learning outside, beyond the classroom, has taken many forms over the years: from Forest Schools, to residential learning programmes and even GCSEs in farming and agriculture. Despite its many styles, the message around learning in the outdoors has never changed. It’s not a ‘nice to have’ addition to education, it’s a ‘need to have’ area of foundational provision, with numerous proven benefits for children and young people.
A huge number of studies have been conducted and received international recognition regarding the beneficial effects of outdoor learning and being connected to nature. The studies have largely centered around four main areas.
1. Health Benefits
When children are outside, they move in multiple ways that are not possible inside a classroom. They run, jump, climb, dig and balance – for hours. At a minimum, they develop muscles and gross motor skills. But deeper than that, they also develop a healthier lifestyle. Children who engage in physical activity regularly at a young age are more likely to have better habits in adulthood. They are learning to ‘be’ in their bodies, and they become accustomed to giving their bodies what they need.
Studies also indicate that being outdoors has a huge impact on our mental health. In their paper ‘Nearby Nature – A Buffer of Life Stress Among Rural Children’ (2003), Wells and Evans outline a body of literature over the last 30 years which supports the profound impact that our environment has on wellbeing. They propose that being connected to nature provides children with a ‘buffer’, helping them to be more resilient against stress and adversity:
‘Increasingly, researchers are also exploring the idea that environmental characteristics may function as buffers or moderators of adverse conditions, serving as protective factors and contributing to resilience among children.’
2. Learning Benefits
It is proven that children who are connected to nature are better learners. Professor Karen Malone (Centre for Education Research, Western Sydney University) produced an impact report in 2016 on student outcomes and natural schooling, outlining the evidence for learning outdoors and impact on cognitive development:
‘Proximity to, views of, and daily exposure to natural settings increases children’s ability to focus and enhances cognitive abilities (Wells, 2000) supporting self-directed learning and has the capacity to improve academic performance……. Play in nature is especially important for developing capacities for creativity, problem solving, and intellectual development.’ (Kellert 2005).
3. Economic Benefits
Another proven fact is that spending time in the outdoors develops a global sense of self-worth, and children’s risk-taking abilities. These are qualities that make people excellent contributors to businesses and organisations. But the deeper impact here is that children who have spent time in nature, and know about their environment care more about it. They become adults who build communities and work to create and save the things that they love. That connection to nature is also a vital connection to community, history, culture and identity, and the sense of self-worth comes from children really knowing who they are.
4. A Sense of Place and Pro-environmental Behaviour
David Attenborough summarised this beautifully when he said, ‘no-one will protect what they don’t care about, and no-one will care about what they have never experienced’. We are living in a time of unprecedented environmental crisis, with multiple problems that we cannot yet solve. These problems will be passed to the next generation, who urgently need to develop a pro-environmental stance if they are to care enough to do what is necessary to overcome. When we connect with nature, and understand our environment, we accept ourselves as part of that eco-system, not as beings who are apart from it. This is global citizenship at its finest.
Nature Deficit Disorder
Despite all evidence from the last 30 years pointing us to towards embracing the outdoor life, there is a parallel body of evidence, a worrying downwards trend, of less engagement and vanishing opportunity. Stephen Moss is a British environmentalist and writer, who published a position paper in 2021 called ‘Natural Childhood’. In his foreword he refers to Richard Louv’s definition of the growing difficulty:
"Nature Deficit Disorder describes the human cost of alienation from nature, among them: diminished use of the senses, attention difficulties, and higher rates of physical and emotional illness."
Statistics gathered in the UK in 2012, almost 10 years ago, paint a worrying picture of a childhood shift to a screen-based lifestyle:
- On average British children watch 2 ½ hours of TV per day
- Children are spending more that 20 hours per week online
- Cases of electronic addiction amongst children and young people are growing steadily. Britain’s young people spend around half their waking lives in front of a screen
Although contextualised to the UK, and in 2012, it is not a burden to the imagination to suggest that the picture is even worse in 2021, and a more global phenomenon. But why? There are a number of culprits to point fingers at. It is easy to blame parents. Risk aversity and ‘helicoptering’ are regular accusations in a world where risk and tragedy are reported to us on a daily basis. The result is that parents are increasingly removing freedoms that they benefitted from in their own childhood. There was once a time when a child in their bedroom during daylight hours was a punishment, and now bedrooms are set up as entertainment hubs and places of safety. Is this irrational fear, or are parents now taking their responsibilities more seriously than before?
The situation is more complex than a change in parenting style, and it is unfair to put parents in the spotlight. Changing socio-economic dynamics, and a rise of the middle class with more disposable income have bred ‘A New Type of Childhood’ (Karsten, 2005). Children have more opportunity for structured recreation, through tutors, private music lessons, sports clubs and more. They have very busy social lives, which leave little opportunity to simply play. Our community infrastructure has also changed significantly. People seldom live where they work, and even less frequently live in the same place for the duration of their lives. So we have become strangers. It no longer takes a village to raise a child.
The Imperative for Nature Connection
Children have never needed nature more than now. Over the last 10 years, the number of children referred to mental health services for depression, attention deficit, self-harm and suicidal ideation has increased exponentially along with the rise in social media use and unrestricted access to the internet. This is not exclusive to teenagers, as professionals engage with children as young as 5 years old, displaying aggressive, sexual or manipulative behaviours. They are documenting 7-year-old girls with eating disorders and 10-year-old boys who have been groomed online. When we tucked children safely away in our homes and in their bedrooms as a response to the dangers outside, we forgot that they have virtual access to a completely different world.
In a new world of pandemic precautions and lockdown, it is hard to establish what the exact cost will be to children’s future mental health and wellbeing. Children around the world are exhibiting the collateral damage already, along with wider family eco-system. It makes sense that well children come from well families, and many families are under enormous pressure. The Outward Bound Trust have published a paper on Young People and COVID-19, looking at the role of the outdoors for their recovery, resilience and wellbeing. While governments are proposing more hours of school lessons to facilitate catching up on ‘lost learning’ this organisation are advocating for exactly the opposite – getting out of school and connecting with the ultimate balm for wellbeing – being in nature.
"We are acutely aware of the likely long-term impact on young people, and in turn their health and wellbeing and future progression. UNICEF UK have billed it “the crisis of a generation”, and the United Nations captured the wide-reaching effects of COVID-19 in a recent policy brief:
‘The pandemic is having profound effects on children’s mental wellbeing, their social development, their safety, their privacy, their economic security.’
‘Given the scale of the pandemic, it is no surprise that young people have been reporting higher levels of anxiety, increased emotional distress, feelings of uncertainty and a lack of control.’
‘We cannot just expect young people to return to normal. We need to be more creative in our responses – to listen to the needs of young people as they emerge from lock down, to understand how to support them and re-engage them in effective ways.’"
A Framework for Moving Forward
At Dulwich College International, we have always worked with the evidence which supports children’s connection to nature. Each campus is carefully designed so that children have access to beautiful, landscaped playgrounds and terraces. Inside each classroom, plants and natural resources are a key feature of learning environments. Teachers do not stick things on windows – why would we block out such wonderful views? And of course, our learning through landscapes philosophy affords each child the opportunity to be outside and experience a different curriculum – locally, nationally and internationally. Our sustainable pledges and commitment to the Global Goals teach our children to value resources, and to love and respect the world. But we are insufficient if we tackle this alone. This framework requires support from parents.
Amplifying the Connection
Spending 2 hours a week in the outdoors can have an impact on our general mood and physicality. Imagine the efficacy of a wrap-around approach to being outside. Each year, I publish a list from the UK National Trust called ’50 things to do before you’re 11 ¾’. It’s a must-do tick list of wonderful rite of passage experiences that enrich childhood and promote natural play. With the Spring holidays approaching, this is the perfect opportunity for families to come together and get outside. Stop worrying about the expensive spring camps, and never-ending scheduled activities. The research shows that children much prefer play that takes place in the wilderness, which engages their imagination, their senses and their whole soul. Just because it’s free, does not mean that it has little value. It’s actually the best medicine in the world.
- Malone, K, and Waite, S (2016) Student Outcomes and Natural Schooling. Plymouth: Plymouth University
- Munoz, S. A (2009) Children in the Outdoors- A Literature Review. Sustainable Development research Centre
- Wells, N. M; Evans, G.W (2003) Nearby Nature – A Buffer of Life Stress Among Rural Children
- Moss, S (2012) Natural Childhood. National Trust
- Young People and COVID-19; The Role of the Outdoors for Their Recovery, Resilience and Wellbeing. The Outward Bound Trust (2020)