The Value of Outdoor Learning for Children and Young People
Childhood is changing. Over the last three decades children have started spending significantly less time outdoors, and much more time indoors. A YouGov poll commissioned by the Wildlife Trusts, and reported in ‘Every Wild Child’, found that fewer than 10% of children play in natural areas, but that 40% of adults did as children (1). Derbyshire (2007) found that the approximate roaming range of children from 1915 to 2015 has reduced from 6 miles to just 300 yards (2).
There are real and perceived risks that may have contributed to this trend, but an even more significant factor is the rise of digital technology. Children now can flick between channels for 24 hour a day children’s TV shows. The rise of the internet has provided a library at the tip of our fingers, and can be a great educational resource. However, surfing the net and playing games can easily become compulsive for many children (3). Along with changes in diet, this rise in sedentary activity may be contributing to the childhood obesity crisis that Wales is now facing. A report for Public Health Wales in 2014 found that 11.3% of children in Wales are obese. It found that 26% of children starting school had an unhealthy Body Mass Index (BMI).This is 4% higher than in England (4). Director of the National Obesity Forum Wales, Dr Nadim Haboudi said ‘Children have computer games, iPads and they sit there for hours’ (5).
In tandem with this, evidence suggests that children may be losing the ability to identify and name common wild plants and animals. A study by the University of Cambridge compared the knowledge of Pokemon characters with common British wildlife. The study found that53% of 8 year olds were successful in identifying wildlife, but more (78%) of children were able to identify Pokemon characters (6). While phone aps like Pokemon Go may get children outside, they are still staring at screens. The author Robert Macfarlane has pointed out that being able to name and recognise something you are more likely to care for it. In response to the Oxford Junior Dictionary dropping a range of nature related words from its pages, Macfarlane and the illustrator Jackie Morris produced a book called ‘The Lost Words, a delightful spellbinding collection of acrostic poetry representing our wildlife. Crowdfunding has ensured that copies of the book are available in many (but not all) schools. In a similar vein, E O Wilson, the founder of the biophilia hypothesis, suggested that ‘hands-on experience at a critical time, not systematic knowledge, is what counts in the making of a naturalist.’ This is backed up by evidence that suggests that significant time, and positive experiences in nature lead to enhanced attitudes and beliefs in the importance of nature conservation and environmental protection (7). Not only is time outdoors in childhood good for health, the fostering of positive attitudes towards nature will be essential if we are to transition towards a society that exists sustainably within the biosphere in the 21st century.
In addition, time outdoors in green settings has been shown to have a significant effect on mental health and wellbeing. Reported in the National Trust’s ‘Natural Childhood’, a survey in 2011 revealed that 80% of people reporting the highest levels of happiness in the UK said that they have a strong connection with the natural world, compared with less than 40% of the unhappiest (8).There are also profound effects just from relocating from an indoor environment into a green space. Bird (2007) notes that ‘green time’ can have a significant role in helping to reduce the symptoms of ADHD (9). In addition, the quality of that green space (i.e. the wilder it is) directly influences the extent of the calming effect on children (10).
Furthermore, if children can engage in meaningful learning experiences in nature that involve challenge there is a marked improvement self-efficacy and self-esteem with positive participation from diverse learner types. Swarbrick (2004) noted an ‘increased ability of quiet children to express themselves, an increase in confidence, and positive participation from disruptive children’ (11)
There are some within the mainstream educational community that recognise the benefits of taking learning outdoors whether that is Science, Expressive Arts, History, Numeracy or Literacy. Pioneering headteachers and teachers are embracing this approach for all the manifold benefits it can offer. Organisations like Pembrokeshire Outdoor Schools and Learning Through Landscapes support teachers to gain more confidence to facilitate meaningful applied hands-on discovery learning outdoors. In Wales we have a particularly supportive policy climate for incorporating more outdoor time into the school day, giving a green light to teachers wishing to embrace this approach with endorsement from various leaders in education (12). This includes progressive legislation such as the Wellbeing of Future Generations Act (2015), as well as the reformed curriculum for Wales, with an emphasis on thematic learning, as set out in the report by Professor Graham Donaldson ‘Successful Futures.’
The time has come for us all to recognise the power of outdoor time for children for improved health and wellbeing, as well as a future generations that understands and knows how to care for our world. Schools and families will both have a role to play to ensure we are providing the base life chances to our young people based on the evidence that’s out there.
Augusta Lewis is an educator and freelance writer. She is the former coordinator of Pembrokeshire Outdoor Schools and the founder of Teifi Wild Things. She now works for Pembrokeshire Coast National Park Authority on a part-time basis as an Activities and Events Coordinator.
See www.pembrokeshireoutdoorschools.org.uk for more information on the benefits of outdoor learning.
(4) Public Health Wales: Childhood measurement Programme for Wales. Annual Report 2015.
(5)http://www.wales.nhs.uk/sitesplus/888/page/677952Reported by BBC News. July 31st 2014 ‘Over one-in 10 Welsh children starting school obese’
(7) See Bird, W & RSPB (2007) ‘Natural Thinking: Investigating the Links between the Natural Environment, Biodiversity and Mental Health’. First Edition. pp 53.
(8) Reynolds, F (2011) ‘People and Nature: A paper from Fiona Reynolds to the Ministerial Advisory Panel of NEWP.’ Quoted in National trust ‘Natural Childhood’. Pp 8.
(9) Bird, W (2007) Natural Thinking: Investigating the Links between the Natural Environment, Biodiversity and Mental Health. RSPB. First Edition. pp 77.
(10) Faber Taylor et al. (2001) Coping with ADHD: The Surprising Connection to Green Play Settings. Environment and Behaviour. 33 (Jan 2001). Pp 54-77.
(11) Swarbrick et al. (2004) quoted in Dillon, J (2011) ‘Understanding the Diverse Benefits of Learning in Natural Environments. King’s College London. pp 9.