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Into the Woods: Linking Nature and Academia

Children in a forest

Can you picture a world without trees? Devoid of anything green and earthy? A childhood without the great outdoors? Although the benefits of spending time outside may seem naturally intuitive to many parents and teachers, there is an alarmingly noticeable shift from the “outside” world towards the “inside” world. Why is that? Is it really the influx of electronics that has brought us here? To a point where it is believed that children can learn and grow perfectly fine without the element of “nature”?

The Shift Towards Academics Void of Nature

Let’s step back and consider the possibility that nature is not an option but rather a necessity. So, why do kids need to spend time outdoors? Because, as research has proven time and again, outdoor play is directly linked with classroom academics.

Say what?! Yup! You read that right… studies show the two go hand in hand. In this article, I’d like to outline this notion of linking early learning at the preschool level, combined with the importance of outdoor play, to later academic success.

The Link Between Test Scores and Outdoors

Believe it or not, there is a new trend in many secondary schools where outdoor time is being decreased in favor of more academic instruction and behavior remediation support programs. Personally, I find this unbelievably upsetting, and yet, I can see how this direction would seem logical to an educational institute. What do kids need to do in order to keep up with the “higher academic standards” some schools tote? Simple: they need to study more. To “learn” more. And logically (to some), this extra time to study must come from “free time” or, outdoor/recess time. Sadly, I think that’s where the problem begins… it’s this notion that outdoor time is “extra” time. You know, something deemed unimportant.

Luckily, not all institutes believe this approach is the way to go. In fact, research has shown that test scores do improve with more time spent outside. Can you believe that just the simple act of looking at nature, as in observing trees outside a window, can reduce childhood stress and illness? Were you aware that children who help in school gardens improve in scientific learning and have healthier eating habits?

The benefits just keep adding up…

Preschoolers, Meet the Great Outdoors

Let’s check out some of the other benefits children attain from spending time in nature, as documented in studies:

1) Increase in physical activity

2) Greater emotional regulation and mental health

3) Motor skill improvement

4) Healthier cholesterol and blood pressure levels

5) Increase in physical health

6) Greater immune system

7) Benefit in more active imaginations

8) Develop better play tactics with other children

Although outdoor play, in general, holds invaluable benefits in children, studies show that some types of nature play seem more beneficial than others. For example, one study found that play time in a natural forested environment improved children’s balance, coordination, and other motor skills, significantly more than the same motor skills in children who only had access to school playgrounds.

More Outside Time Equals Healthier Kids

While playing outside has plenty of health and social benefits for children, there is new research evidence that shows playing and learning outdoors also benefits academic progress. What?! Yes, it’s true! And here are just a few of the ways that outdoor experiences can benefit children in a classroom:

1) Increase in performance in reading, science, math and social studies

2) Overall improved behavior in the classroom

3) Increased motivation to learn overall in students

4) A drastic reduction in ADHD symptoms

5) A notable improvement in academic performance in low-income and under-resourced students

6) A higher capability to concentrate

7) Better memory skills

8) Improvement in overall attendance

The Importance of Outdoor Play for Young Children

As a product of the non-electronics era, what is outdoor play but one of the memorable things that characterize our childhood memories? I often ask myself, would it have even been possible to have had a full and enjoyable childhood without my experience of nature? Without all that time I had spent in “outdoor play”? I sometimes look at my kids and wonder what makes my childhood so very different from theirs…

Children need these precious opportunities to experiment. To explore and manipulate and expand nature… to influence and change the world. They need to learn to push their limits. And most of all? To create. For you see, outdoor play enables young children to learn lots and lots and lots of things about the very world they live in.