Do kids learn better outdoors?

Children with a teacher crouching by a river

At a glance

  • Outdoor education helps kids see the real-life application of what they are learning.
  • Children who don't necessarily thrive in a traditional classroom are often more engaged by outdoor learning opportunities.
  • NSW Sport and Recreation camps are a good example of combining curriculum with active learning.
  • Exercise and outdoor activity bathes the brain with endorphins which provides them with a natural high.
  • Kids need opportunities to take risks in a controlled environment to learn life skills.
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It's never been more important for children to get off the lounge and take a break in the great outdoors, however the benefits aren't just health related .

Research from The American Institutes for Research shows they may just learn more, as outdoor education can also significantly improve a child's:

  • mastery of: science concepts
  • self esteem
  • problem solving skills
  • motivation to learn
  • general classroom behaviour.

Children learn in different ways
When it comes to education, it's not just what children learn but how and where they learn that's critical to their overall development.

Outdoor education helps kids see the real-life application of what they are learning – even reluctant students can suddenly make sense of subjects like science, maths and geography concepts. Studies have found that children who don't necessarily thrive in a traditional classroom (including students with ADHD) are more engaged and successful when they're learning in a curriculum-based, outdoor environment.

Real-life, active learning
Rosemary Davis, a teacher and Director at NSW Sport and Recreation, says providing curriculum-based learning in a natural environment is at the heart of the outdoor education programs they offer as school camps. "We've carefully developed a wide range of camps, which supplement the NSW curriculum and really help students grasp how different concepts they've learned actually make sense in the real world," Ms Davis says.

"They're having fun, and also learning new, important life skills at the same time - leadership skills, risk management, problem solving – while building their confidence in their own abilities."

Improving self-esteem
There's real science behind the increased self-esteem kids feel after an outdoor education experience. Exercise and outdoor activity bathe the brain with endorphins which provide children with a natural high.  They step outside their comfort zone and with the help of those endorphins, can connect learning with the feeling of success.

Minimal risk, major benefits
Outdoor learning often provides the opportunity to take risks in a controlled environment. Dr Ian Boyle, Lecturer in Physical, Health and Outdoor Education, from the Universities of Sydney and Wollongong says it's important to know positive risk activities can have major learnings and benefits to children. 

"There's been a blurring of the difference between positive and negative risk in society. Positive risk activities can have major learning and benefits to children; climbing a tree, riding a bike to school are all worthy past-times that have been performed for generations", Dr Boyle says.

How you can help
You can encourage and support children's involvement in outdoor learning. Be aware of "accidental learning" opportunities when you spend time together outdoors. Remind your child to be observant, and to question why things might be the way they are. Help them take calculated risks in a safe environment - through sports, a school holiday sport and recreational camp or activities such as the Duke of Edinburgh Award that challenge them physically and mentally.



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