Why I Teach Outside

Why I Teach Outside: Josh and his students study outdoors Courtesy & Copyright Steph Juth
Josh and his students study outdoors
Courtesy & Copyright Steph Juth
In February of this year, researchers published an integrative review of the literature on nature’s role as a catalyst for academic growth in children. They had this to say about their findings: “In academic contexts, nature-based instruction outperforms traditional instruction. The evidence here is particularly strong…” (Kuo, Barnes, and Jordan, 2019). For a long time, great thinkers such as renowned educator John Dewey and conservationist Aldo Leopold have recognized and professed the power of situational, hands-on learning—especially in the natural world, and especially among children. This sentiment is something we all share, I think—something bordering on instinct. Now, scientific research has caught up to a truth we all know in our bones.

This is a topic close to my heart; I’m a third grade teacher who got his start leading groups of kids into the backcountry, canoeing and backpacking the lake-littered northern latitudes of the mid-west. Adventure and education always seemed necessarily intertwined to me. “Education is not preparation for life,” said John Dewey; “education is life itself.” And life, I’ve always thought, is out there. The authors of the literature review agree, writing that “experiences with nature…promote children’s academic learning and seem to promote children’s development as persons” (Kuo et al., 2019). One of the key logs for this increase in learning and development is the increase in students’ motivation once they’ve left the walls and classrooms behind. According to the researchers’ report, “learning in and around nature is associated with intrinsic motivation, which, unlike extrinsic motivation, is crucial for student engagement and longevity of interest in learning” (Kuo et al., 2019). Even more “[e]ncouragingly, learning in nature may improve motivation most in those students who are least motivated in traditional classrooms” (Kuo et al., 2019).

I’ve been fortunate to have had the opportunity to work with students in the field. While out there, I’ve had that instinctual knowledge we all share reaffirmed while sitting next to a dammed-up beaver pond, watching third-graders reverse engineer the beaver dam out of rocks, sticks, silly putty, and freshly-chewed wood chips from a beaver log. I know my circumstances are not the norm, though—not yet, at least. So, how might teachers utilize the natural world when there’s no beaver dam on campus and they can’t get the funding or administrative support to go find one? It may be simpler than one thinks! There is an abundance of evidence that indicates students can reap the same benefits just from being outside while they learn. “In multiple studies,” the researchers point out, “the greener a school’s surroundings, the better its standardized test performance—even after accounting for poverty and other factors—and classrooms with green views yield similar findings” (Kuo et al., 2019). To supplement the views and the greenspaces, though, teachers can consult research-based resources like UC Berkley’s teaching guide, School Yard Ecology, and the National Science Teachers Association’s inspired 10-minute Field Trips.

If the increasingly robust academic research into nature’s role in student learning is any indication, though, I foresee a not-so-distant future replete with an even wider diversity of resources and opportunities for teachers and students to explore the natural world in pursuit of academic rigor. “It is time,” the authors of the integrative review write, “to bring nature and nature-based pedagogy into formal education—to expand existing, isolated efforts into increasingly mainstream practices” (Kuo et al., 2019). It seems incumbent upon us to trust the truth we feel in our bones.

I’m Josh Boling, and I’m Wild About Utah.

Photos: Courtesy & Copyright Steph
Sound: Courtesy & Copyright
Text: Josh Boling, 2018

Sources & Additional Reading

Kuo, Barnes, Jordan, Frontiers in Psychology, Do Experiences With Nature Promote Learning? Converging Evidence of a Cause-and-Effect Relationship, 2019, https://www.frontiersin.org/articles/10.3389/fpsyg.2019.00305/full

Barrett, Katharine, Willard, Carolyn, SchoolYard Ecology, GEMS (Great Expections in Math & Science), Lawrence Hall of Science, University of California, Berkeley, http://lhsgems.org/GEMSschooleco.html

Russell, Helen Ross, Ten-Minute Field Trips: A Teachers’s Guide to Using the Schoolgrounds for Environmental Studies, National Science Teaching Association, 1998, https://www.nsta.org/store/product_detail.aspx?id=10.2505/9780873550987