Researcher of the Month
What are the Benefits of Outdoor Learning?
There is now a significant body of research which indicates that nature is linked to physical, cognitive and emotional benefits for children. In fact, amongst other positive outcomes, nature exposure has been linked to improved affect and cognition, prosocial and self regulated behaviour, better performance in school tests, improved mood, confidence and social skills, reduced ADHD symptoms, lower physiological stress and better physical development and health. It’s even associated with creativity!
Much of the existing research into the impact of nature on children does not focus on school settings. Many papers consider specific schemes such as Forest School, which differ significantly in both curriculum content and approach to the kinds of learning that children tend to do indoors. This creates challenges in using it to inform practice in schools.
Our Researcher of the Month, PhD student Gemma Goldenberg, aims to address this problem. She hypothesises that if exposure to nature can improve cognition, physical health, social behaviour and wellbeing, then spending more of the school day learning outside in natural settings could have a significant positive impact on pupils’ attainment and mental health. She has carried out some exciting work within primary schools and has designed her project to help schools develop effective learning environments and interventions, and a research informed approach to outdoor learning.
In order to assess the impact of outdoor learning, Gemma visited six reception classes in Newham, London, working with 75 children. Each class took part in eight indoor and eight outdoor sessions. In order to assess the specific impact of being outside, both the indoor and outdoor sessions were structured in exactly the same ways. Both used the same curriculum, activities, resources, amount of space, seating arrangements, rules about movement, teaching staff and time of day. Both indoor and outdoor learning involved five to ten minutes of carpet time – either a story read by the teacher or a maths activity – which was followed by 30 minutes of choosing time, where children could free flow around a selection of table-top and floor activities.
During these sessions, Gemma took various scientific measures. All of the children wore head-mounted cameras and microphones and 45 consented to wearing heart rate monitors. The camera and microphone footage enabled Gemma to count the number of prosocial and antisocial interactions and compare these across indoor and outdoor settings. It also recorded which activities each child engaged in and how long they spent at each before moving on, giving an indication of their focus and involvement. Heart rate data analysed children’s physiological stress levels in each environment. Since heart rate increases when we move, Gemma took her measurements during seated activities, both indoors and outdoors. Actigraphs were fitted to measure how much the children were moving around and Gemma also used a decibel meter to compare the noise levels in each environment and explore how these might correlate with children’s stress and behaviour.
Whilst Gemma is still analysing data, her findings are exciting! She discovered that in the outdoor settings, children’s heart rates were lower by almost three beats per minute. She also found that outdoor sessions were quieter than indoors by around 3db for carpet time and 4db for choosing times. Indoors, there was a statistically significant relationship between noise during carpet time and physiological stress levels – as noise levels increased, so did children’s heart rates. This was not replicated outdoors. Outside, even when it was louder, children’s heart rates didn’t increase.
‘There seems to be something about the experience of being outside which is less stressful for children, and it’s not just because it’s quieter. Being outdoors is providing some sort of buffering effect against stress/noise’.
Implications for schools:
Gemma found that being outside reduced children’s heart rates after only five minutes. When planning outside time, remember that it doesn’t need to be a lengthy trip to have a positive impact.
Don’t worry if your outdoor area is lacking in natural features. In Gemma’s study, many of the playground areas were concrete, urban spaces and she still saw positive physiological effects and noise level reduction.
Remember that anything that you do indoors can be transported outdoors. Outdoor learning does not have to follow a specific type of pedagogy or focus on ‘outdoor’ topics or skills. Almost any indoor activities can be replicated outside. This could include reading a story, circle time, 1-1 reading or 1-1 assessments (which Gemma suggests are likely to go better when carried out in a calm environment).
Even micro-doses of nature can be impactful. Did you known that simply playing a slideshow of images from nature or a natural soundscape can make a positive difference, as can having houseplants in the classroom?
Initial findings indicate that certain groups of children are impacted more by outdoor learning. Gemma found that boys are much more likely than girls to see a reduction in heart rate when they are outside, as are children with special educational needs when compared to those without. It’s important to note that the number of children in the study with a diagnosed special educational need was very low (partly due to the children’s age).
To find out more, tune into our podcast interview with Gemma now.
Resources Created from and Related to this Research
Gemma Goldenberg, PhD researcher at the University of East London.
Gemma Goldenberg is a PhD researcher specialising in the impact of indoor and outdoor learning environments and how they affect young children’s stress, attention and self regulation. She spent 15 years working as a teacher and assistant head in primary schools and today, alongside her research career is co-founder of Nestkids.co.uk and a writer and trainer on how to use neuroscience and research techniques in early years and school settings.