At the edge of the forest, buried in a thick growth of beech trees, sits a small train car in a fenced yard with a wooden gate. Inside the yard, stretched between the towering trees, a canvas canopy covers a fire pit surrounded by large logs used as benches. There are piles of rocks, a variety of carved or sharpened sticks, and some tins – presumably to bake mud pies.
Upon the logs sit several children and two teachers. Each is packed into layers of undergarments and snow pants and heavy boots so that any movement comes with crinkling and swishing as the children settle in their spots. They will make a fire later, says the teacher, but first they are going on an adventure with the forester. He has found a dead boar and they are going to go look at all the things feasting on the carcass as it decays into the forest.
Probably, they’ll even see maggots and guts. The children make a number of faces ranging from disgust to excitement as they chitter amongst themselves about who might touch them.
The lesson today is a not-so-accidental series of lectures on sustainability, life cycle, ecology and more. The children will use fallen trees as balance beams, choose their safety-buddy for the day, and develop new language skills all while getting their “dose” of “green exposure.”
There is nothing surprising in the recent raft of studies reaching the same conclusion: Education in the outdoors (time in nature, green space, green bathing) improves educational, physical and mental health outcomes for children of all ages. What is surprising is that we have policy and practices that actively reduce the availability of and access to these methods of education.
In a world where learning challenges such as dyslexia, ADHD, or the prevalence of depression and anxiety in youth are drastically increasing, the evidence of outdoor education’s positive impact on emotional regulation shows it’s vital to an inclusive education experience. With schools and families investing resources to create 504 accommodation plans (which, for ADHD students, often include additional time to “take a break” from the classroom), one has to wonder why we are not exploring an obvious possible solution: Go outside more. Better yet: Go outside to learn.
At the risk of suggesting a reductionist solution to a complex issue (trees alone are not the cure to a rising neuro-divergent population, nor is this group the only ones to benefit from the trees), our policies on increasing time spent indoors on math and English, reducing recess time, and failing to fund playgrounds, field trips, or green spaces, are contraindicated to the health of our children.
The current national average of recess time in schools is 25 minutes with only 16% of states mandating recess. Recent studies a decline in recess time in general despite the American Academy of Pediatrics referring to it as “crucial” in the “emotional, cognitive, social and behavioral development of children.”
It’s not just a matter of going outside. In a study on the quality of recess time researchers found that some schools shuffle the children into concrete courtyards where the hubris of inner-city diaspora (needles, condoms, trash) trickle in through chain link fences. While sprawling parklike campuses may not be possible, even minor exposure to greenery has an effect.
In a 2016 study, students were placed in groups with access to a window looking out at parking lots and building or access to a window looking out at trees. There was significant improvement on attention and working memory in the children who viewed trees. If the mere presence of trees in our peripheral view improve brain function, how does outdoor education impact it? And in light of the evidence supporting more outdoor time and outdoor education, how do we access it?
Some of the qualities of outdoor education seem less measurable than, say, standardized testing and perhaps this has contributed to the decline of its importance. But how and what we learn outdoors is unique precisely because it is unscripted and variable.
“It’s not just that we’re connected to nature, the calming effect of that environment, or how getting our hands in the dirt is known to have anti-depressant qualities,” said Dr. Joe Wassif, a prescribing psychologist at Bonner General Behavioral Health. “It is also in how we learn the natural consequences of something as simple as forgetting a raincoat.”
The importance of free play in the development of children is one component of this and being outdoors is specific to that experience of freedom, exploration and discovery.
“Nature is not contrived,” he said.
There is another unsung benefit to outdoor education: Accidental conservationism and environmental sustainability. As the world grapples with sustainability-literacy, raising generations of citizens with a direct appreciation of and integration with their environments will become imperative to our response to climate change.
Sadly, the majority of schools offering consistently available outdoor education are private and cost-prohibitive to the general population. While Spokane and the Pacific Northwest has many options for “Nature Schools” ranging from preschools to Waldorf education, our public schools have little opportunity or resources for more outdoor time.
And yet, that doesn’t mean we cannot try. Most policy on recess time, investment in playgrounds, and curriculum decisions are made within school districts leaving them empowered to implement changes.
Whether they are as significant as funding green spaces or as minor as walking lectures, the research is clear: the benefits to our children, the teachers and the environment are worth the hurdles.
Back in the forest kindergarten, the children have returned from their reverent observation of the deceased wildlife. Their rambunctious adventure has evolved into a different kind of play now; they are discussing what they’ve brought for lunch and with whom they will share.
With rosy cheeks and a fair amount of dirt on their chins, they sing a song about seasons as they clomp their way back to school.
Perhaps none has so eloquently or so urgently articulated the need for this kind of learning better than Richard Louv is his book, “Last Child in the Woods.”
“Passion is lifted from the earth itself by the muddy hands of the young; it travels along grass-stained sleeves to the heart,” he wrote. “If we are going to save environmentalism and the environment, we must also save an endangered indicator species: the child in nature.”