Thrive With the Amazing Benefits of Outdoor Learning

Children running outside

Taking learning outside will not only change your teaching, but it can also change both you and your student’s lives. I know that is a huge claim, but science and tons of anecdotal research back it up. Once you start getting outside with your students you will start to notice the amazing physical, mental, social, and emotional benefits of outdoor learning. Getting outside will not only help you to survive the school year, but also thrive!

I was especially convinced of these amazing benefits after my recent experiences with a particular class that was labelled, “difficult” by many of the support services that worked in our school. In this group, there were several kids with behavioural needs (like chair throwers) and several kids with weak communication skills. On top of that many of the students had poorly developed emotional and physical regulation skills. It was a very challenging year (to say the least.)

At the start of the school year we would go outside to our “forest” for outdoor play time…and the kids would just stand there. They didn’t know how to play! However, after repeatedly visiting the same spot, the kids started to become more confident and comfortable and they started making up games. As they started playing, some of the non-verbal kids starting talking. Some of the kids who struggled with group and partner work started seeking out groups to play with.

The transformation was amazing. In the end they didn’t become “perfect students” but their growth was significant. I want you to be able to experience the amazing benefits of outdoor learning with your students, no matter what their age and abilities might be.

If you are looking for posters or handouts to share with your administration or school community about the benefits of outdoor learning, check out our “Get Outside Tool Kit.”

Keep reading to find out about:

  • The physical health and growth benefits of outdoor learning
  • The mental health benefits of outdoor learning
  • The social and emotional benefits of outdoor learning
  • How you can get started with outdoor learning and experience these benefits too!
The Benefits of Outdoor Learning/ 3 children sitting in a tree

The Physical Health Benefits of Outdoor Learning

Probably some of the most tangible and noticeable benefits of outdoor learning are the physical benefits. Being outdoors not only provides our students (and ourselves) with more opportunities to move, but it also helps build strength, stamina, gross motor, and even fine motor skills. There are some fantastic books, such as Balanced and Barefoot by Angela Hanscom, about how getting outside not only benefits our children’s health but their physical development as well.

Although most of these benefits appear geared toward the growth and development of younger students, they also benefit both older students and adults as well.

The Outdoors Offers More Space to Move (And Not Get in Trouble)

Being outside gives your students a chance to move around. I’m sure you have witnessed some “undesirable movement” activities in your classroom. You know, like jumping from desk to desk, swinging/hanging on things, running around the classroom, climbing the door frame, or crawling on the floor. Things that are normal kid things to do, but just not appropriate in a classroom.

However, outside these activities are welcomed and even expected. An outdoor setting provides opportunities to move freely and interact with nature in a way that feels best to kids. The formal rules of indoors no longer apply and children are able to just be kids.

Outdoor time also frees students from the confines of their desks or tables. We have all heard things like “sitting is the new smoking,” yet our kids sit in a regular school setting for up to 5-6 hours a day. At some schools, kids don’t even really get a recess. Being outdoors and in nature provides students with an opportunity to move around and simply move their bodies. They have freedom and choice.

For some simple ways to add physical activity to your outdoor lessons, check out this post: 5 Easy Ways to Add Physical Activity to Your Outdoor Classes

Which Leads to…Gross Motor Skills Just Come Naturally Outside

Outdoor movement invites kids to work on gross motor skills and provides natural opportunities to grow in these skills. Trees invite kids to climb, swing, and hang. Open spaces provide opportunities to run. The uneven ground allows students to work on balance. A bug crawling on the ground requires students to crouch down or crawl to examine it further. All of these are skills that I teach in gym class, but outdoors they just seem to come naturally and in a more engaging way.

Which also Leads to….Building Core Strength (Without the Crunches)

One of the amazing physical benefits of outdoor learning is the core workout that kids experience without even knowing it. Even notice how your students are getting a bit more slouchy. This is because they aren’t getting opportunities to build their core. Sitting at desks or being sedentary indoors has led many kids to have weak core muscles (the muscles in your back, abdomen, and pelvis.) Poor core strength contributes to pain, injury, and even poor posture.

When you are outdoors, you naturally sit and move in ways that are more natural. Sitting on the ground in different positions, laying on their tummies, crouching, crawling, balancing on rocks, walking on uneven surfaces, squatting, etc. are all activities that kids of all ages just naturally do when they are outdoors. These activities require students to use their core muscles to stabilize and balance their body as it moves in different positions. 

Which also Contributes to…Balance and Coordination Development

Outdoors, the ground is uneven, there are changes in elevation, and there are things to climb on and branches to swing from. All of these activities allow kids to work on their balance and coordination in ways that an indoor setting can’t. For example, you can practice balancing in gym class, but it is nothing compared to the challenge of trying to balance on a log or tree stump.

Nature provides opportunities to build these physical skills in ways that kids just naturally gravitate towards. Climbing on a stump requires coordination, core strength, and balance. Kids can turn it into a game or challenge themselves to balance for longer. They are building these vital skills without any adult, gym teacher, or occupational therapist involvement. 

More Time Outside Allows Kids to Build Stamina and Endurance

In a regular school setting, we spend way too much time sitting and being sedentary. As a result, many students have really poor stamina and endurance (like I have kindergartens who can’t even make it through one round of a tag game at the start of the year.)

Nature provides students with natural opportunities to build their endurance and stamina. Play and learning in the outdoors require students to continue walking and moving until they reach the desired destination. While outdoors, their play or exploration will take place over a much larger area than when they are indoors. Kids also sustain their play for longer when they are outside as the environment allows them to continually build on their play ideas. 

One More Physical Benefit…Nature Helps Us With Practicing Fine Motor Skills

Another fantastic physical benefit of outdoor learning is fine motor skill practice. Gently handling an insect, picking up tiny sticks off the ground, or grasping to pick a berry off of a bush all require fine motor skills and dexterity. Fine motor skills refer to the ability of the small muscles in the hands and wrist to operate in coordination with the eyes to carry out finer tasks. These are the skills that are required to hold a pencil, draw, write, colour, pick up small pieces (like small legos) or do other activities that involve using the hands. 

The benefits of outdoor learning- 4 children sitting outside and laughing

The Mental Health Benefits of Outdoor Learning

Nature and outdoor learning are not just good for our body, but are also good for our brains too. There are so many fabulous mental health benefits of outdoor learning ranging from just being able to get a break from the classroom to actually helping students to focus and be more attentive.

Once you start to get outside with your students, you will start to notice right away how you begin to relax and feel more tuned in. Why wouldn’t you want more of that during your school day?

Outdoor Learning Provides A Mental Break from Indoors

Everyone starts to feel a bit sluggish and lethargic after they have been inside for too long. This goes for teachers too! Being in a classroom, especially all day long, can cause kids to feel bored and uninterested in what they are doing.  However, outdoor learning provides kids with a break from the monotony of learning in an indoor classroom. Taking learning outside can also add an element of novelty to your learning. Nothing brings more life to learning than observing the wonder of nature firsthand.

Nature Provides Just Right Amount of Stimulation

Nature and spending time outdoors provide just the right amount of stimulation for most children. Many of our indoor spaces are either too stimulating or not stimulating enough. As hard as you try, no classroom can be designed perfectly for every single student and meet the needs of everyone.

Neither overstimulation nor understimulation are wrong or bad, they are just different ways that people experience the world around them. However, if children are not given opportunities to self-regulate or find the right amount of stimulation for them, undesirable behaviours can occur in our classrooms. 

The amazing thing about taking learning outside is that nature provides the right amount of stimulation for almost everyone. We are a part of nature and our bodies are designed to be in nature. Nature provides inviting and enticing multi-sensory experiences that are hard to duplicate indoors.

The sensations of sun, wind, mist, rain, or snow are soothing to many. Changing textures such as bark, moss, rocks, leaves, and grass can be stimulating but also calming to those that are needing some stimulation. The soundscape is varied and interesting. The smells of nature stimulate memories and also relax children. The variety and quality of the stimulation provided by nature help children to self-regulate and feel better able to cope.

Increased Focus Both Indoors and Outdoors

Just like adults, student attention ebbs and flows throughout the day. Our attention can be caught by something unrelated to what we are learning about and we have trouble getting back on track. Or maybe, our brain is just tired and needs a break. However, some time outdoors can help students regain their focus. Time in nature has been shown to increase our ability to concentrate and focus during indoor tasks.

Nature Helps Children and Adults to Reduce Stress and Anxiety

We all know that when we are stressed, our brains can’t function optimally. However, study after study has shown how simply being in nature can help both children and adults to lower their levels of stress. Movement while outdoors also helps to relieve some of the stress and tension from our busy days at school. 

Time outdoors has also been scientifically proven to lower heart rate and blood pressure, both symptoms of anxiety and stress. Time in nature, away from the pressures of class and a break from the stressors of everyday life, provides students with these benefits. During outdoor education, kids are able to spend time simply enjoying their surroundings, while also learning from nature. 

Nature Provides A Chance to Relax

The colours green and blue have been shown to promote relaxation. Many people choose to paint rooms with these colours to create a relaxing vibe. However, getting outdoors and into the green scenery has an even greater effect on relaxation. Studies have even shown that just having a window with a view of greenery can help to relax people and improve their feelings of well-being.

Additionally, many sounds from nature have a soothing effect on our brains. Think about the relaxing nature sounds on your white noise machine, such as rain, waves, or bird songs. You can find all of these outside naturally. Outdoors you are (hopefully) free from some of the more stressful indoor noises, such as humming lights, interrupting intercoms, and the general commotion of a school. All of this allows your brain to relax and recharge.

Finally, outdoors students are free from the pressures of indoor class assignments. Even though they may be engaged in a learning activity, the nature of outdoor education takes a lot of pressure off of students and allows them to learn in a way that feels best to them. This allows students to relax and take joy in what they are learning, rather than feeling pressure to perform.

Nature Provides A Chance to Have Some Alone Time

For our more introverted students, a busy classroom can be chaotic and stressful. Being in a room with a large number of students can be overstimulating and mentally taxing on someone who needs more space and time to think. 

Outdoor education and outdoor learning environments give students the mental health benefits of spending time alone. The outdoor learning space allows students to spread out and find their own little spaces that work for them. A student can make a space their own and start to feel a connection and sense of safety in that space. 

The benefits of outdoor learning/ 4 children laying in the grass

Social and Emotional Benefits of Outdoor Learning

Nature truly nurtures our whole selves. The benefits of outdoor learning reach beyond just the physical and mental health benefits. Once you start getting outside with your students you will begin to see some of the amazing social and emotional benfits of outdoor learning as well as the physical and mental health benefits.

Nature Allows Us To Build Connections to Each Other

Outdoor play and outdoor learning naturally connect kids to each other. While playing and working outdoors there is more collaboration and communication between kids. Outdoors, students need to work together to accomplish tasks, organize play, or simply move heavy things (I’ve never seen a group of kids turn down the opportunity to move a big rock.) As the kids gain experience working together, they start to build their relationships with each other. 

Kids also bond over shared experiences and adventures. These don’t need to be grand, multi-day expeditions to be memorable. Going on a “bear hunt” or finding something fascinating can be experiences that kids remember and connect over. For older kids, accomplishing a challenge together such as building a snow fort or completing a challenging hike also brings kids together as they reminisce about their shared experience. 

Increased Opportunities to Work Together

Many games and tasks that kids find in the outdoors require teamwork or working together to accomplish. For example, building a fort requires moving heavy things, taking turns holding things, or simply working together to make a plan. The games that kids develop outdoors are also more complex and involve intricate role-playing and building on each other’s ideas. This teamwork and collaboration lead to an increased sense of connection to each other.

Additionally, students come together to support each other through difficult tasks. Overcoming an obstacle often results in the students cheering each other on and helping to solve the problem. The students become their own cheerleaders, mentors, and teachers. 

Nature Nurtures Improved Communication Skills

As a kindergarten teacher, I find it fascinating to watch the difference between outdoor play games and indoor play games. Usually, our outdoor play time lasts much longer than indoor playtime and involves less “stuff.” We take out a few props or tools, but the rest is all items that nature has to offer.

The outdoor play involves much more dialogue, negotiation, and descriptive skills. Kids need to use their imagination to conceive the idea and then communicate to others what they are seeing and doing. I have watched my kindergarten students go on “bear hunts” that last for over an hour. As they go they are describing what they are doing, describing the bear, thinking about what their next steps are, and sharing their discoveries.

I have noticed a similar trend with older students. While they are outdoors, they are making discoveries, describing what they have found, persuading their friends to come see, and just generally spending more time talking. This is especially true if you compare an outdoor science lesson, to an indoor science lesson with videos, textbooks, and note taking. 

For more info on outdoor play see:

Outdoor Learning Leads to Resilience Building

Outdoor learning and outdoor play naturally lend themselves to kids doing things that they perceive to be hard or challenging. As they work to complete these challenges they are in turn building their resilience and creating the foundation to continue to do hard things in other areas of their life. When I teach indoors, I often find myself telling the younger students, “You’ve got this, you can do hard things.” However, outside I almost never have to do this, the kids just do the hard things because they enjoy the challenge. 

Students also encounter natural obstacles and challenges, such as climbing trees or jumping from a higher object. For some, these tasks require a great deal of bravery. However, once they try it they understand that they are capable and they continue to build their courage.

Which Leads to…Improved Self Confidence

As students do hard things, overcome obstacles, and start to test their own limits, their self-confidence soars. Although they may not say it, students notice when something that they once found challenging is now suddenly easy. The long walk to the trees now doesn’t seem quite as long or balancing on a log is now easy. 

The outdoor learning environment provides many opportunities for students to challenge themselves and continue to build on the skills that they have been practicing. Nature naturally scaffolds this learning and allows the students to continue to grow and see themselves as being confident and capable. 

Which Also Leads to…Greater Understanding of Self

Doing hard things outdoors means that students not only begin to understand their own capabilities, but they start to find ways that they can continue to grow these capabilities. As students start to see themselves as capable, they start to understand their own unique talents and try to find ways to build on these skills. They also start to understand their own limitations and will begin to seek out others that can help them and teach in these areas.

In the outdoors, students also begin to understand their own boundaries. They know when they have pushed themselves too far or when things are starting to get scary. They begin to trust their own judgement and set boundaries for their own comfort and safety. Students begin to understand when they need a break from an activity and when their body is craving more of a particular activity. They also understand what activities they don’t like and are able to simply not participate in those activities.

Students also have the opportunity to set boundaries with others outdoors. The diversity of experiences means that students can engage with each other in many different ways. If students do not want to participate in a rough game, they have the opportunity and freedom to share that with others. Students are able to negotiate their own personal boundaries for play and what feels right to them. They may leave a game/activity that they don’t feel comfortable with. 

Probably One of the Most Important Benefits…Connection to Nature

One of the most significant benefits of outdoor learning is the building of a connection to nature. In order to have a connection with nature, you need to spend some time in nature. Kids that spend time outdoors have a greater understanding of nature simply because they have spent more time with her and have built a relationship with her. This understanding of nature leads to a greater understanding of the cycles and the systems that exist in nature. It also helps students to understand their own role in nature.

Additionally, time spent in nature provides students with opportunities to see how nature affects them. They can start to see how being outdoors can help to shift their mood and improve their feelings of well-being. The feelings of connection and well-being when they are in nature, lead students to want to protect and learn more about nature. 

The benefits of outdoor learning/ a young girl holding a salamander

Now It’s Time For You to Get Outside and Experience These Amazing Benefits

Wow! This is why I love outdoor learning. There are so many amazing benefits of outdoor learning. Nature really does nurture and look after us. When we talk about growing the whole child, there is no better way than spending some time outside in nature.

There are so many amazing benefits of outdoor learning for both you and your students. It’s time you get started with taking your students outdoors. You don’t need any special training or skills, just a desire to make a meaningful difference in your student’s lives. Why not take some time to think about how you are going to get outside with your students this year?

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