Kids in nature

Guest blog post by Grace Frenson

Natural environments provide the most ideal places for children to learn. They are flush with perfect examples of concepts traditionally taught in the classroom, but with far more engaging examples.

By using outdoor, natural spaces as impromptu classrooms, children absorb concepts with a minimal amount of effort and easily become fascinated by subjects and new ideas they may have previously considered “boring.”

Overall, any child, struggling or not, can benefit from more time outdoors. This applies to children of any age or at any level of education.

First-Hand Experiences Lead to Deeper Understanding

One really effective way to create real-life experiences is with outdoor learning parties.  Set up scavenger hunts where kids go off into nature and look for plants and animals in their habitats.

If a child is introduced to a new concept during outdoor play, while they are experiencing something they can connect to that concept, they are much more likely to remember it and fully understand what the concept means. This approach works well with basic information and skills as well as the introduction of geometry concepts and new vocabulary.

For example, if a young child observes a small garter snake, there is a perfect opportunity to introduce the word “slither.” This act also creates a number of new neural links in the brain. Just reading a word and memorizing its meaning, creates a limited number of neural pathways. If the word or concept is accompanied by a visual example, or something the child can touch and experience, many more links will be established.

Increased Physical Well-Being

Children that are given more time to be active outdoors and experience all that nature has to offer are more attentive when it comes to indoor learning as well. They are also more likely to be fully present and engaged, primarily if the subject being studied has to do with something they have experienced.

For example, if a child has recently taken a family vacation to the beach and then returns to school, they have dozens if not hundreds of small, new experiences that they can tie into their schoolwork. This can be the basic physics of building a sand castle, how tides and waves function, or basic marine biology. Many concepts can be quickly absorbed and learned without the child even being aware of the invaluable information they have acquired.

Further, a beach vacation may be another way for children to be inspired by the power of nature. Learning how to be safe in bright, sunny conditions as well as learning to swim and be safe around these natural forces can help them discover their personal limits. In doing so, a child may develop an interest in physical activity. Again, children who are more physically active outdoors are more attentive and engaged in the classroom.

Nature Is Unstructured

Nature provides one of the easiest environments for unstructured play. There are hundreds of things that might catch a child’s interest at any given moment. This type of play allows the child to become inspired and take action. Acting without direct instruction or intervention can boost a child’s confidence in their own abilities and help develop skills that will become useful leadership qualities later in life. This unstructured type of play can also be a boon to their creative development.

Increased Resilience to Stress and Academic Pressure

Nature heals as well as inspires. This is as true for children as it is for adults. If a child is struggling with a concept, merely being given time to explore in a natural setting could give them just what they need to work through it. Further, being out in a natural environment, according to Attention Restoration Theory (ART), natural environments restore the ability to pay attention to and focus on a given problem.

Further, if a particular concept or problem is putting a child to sleep, literally, due to boredom or lack of interest, changing to a natural environment or incorporating a natural phenomena or subject that they can interact with will almost certainly inspire them. Natural ecosystems are full of sights, sounds, and tactile sensations that are of “evolutionary importance.” This means that any person is naturally and effortlessly more alert when these are present.

Further, “green” environments tend to help ebb away stress in children and adults. An unfamiliar natural environment can have a more pronounced effect. This is as much due to the evolutionary factors mentioned above as it is due to a change of scenery.

New, natural environments and experiences can inspire children to make their own choices and be confident in them, to direct their own learning beyond what is expected of them in the classroom, and allow them to learn effortlessly by doing rather than passively absorbing.