When we think about going to school, we think about getting on the bus or riding in mom or dad’s car to the same place five days a week. We think about classrooms with desks and tile floors, and hallways crowded with classmates and lockers. This is our traditional school setting, with its strict rules, cafeteria food and “no talking allowed” study halls. But today, we must remember that learning is not tied to the classroom. Our traditions tell us that learning needs to be done in a specific place, but that could not be further from the truth. STEM education is blurring the lines between traditional and experimental learning, which is bringing modern learning environments to the forefront when we say the word “school.”
Many studies have been conducted that demonstrate the power of the natural environment and its positive effects on kids’ learning and overall well-being. A study done by the University of Georgia shows that kids in school who have unrestricted views of nature tested higher in math, reading and language arts than kids with urban views or no views at all. A study conducted by Edutopia shows that interacting with nature is particularly helpful to kids with ADD and ADHD, and that green, grassy play spaces help reduce attention deficit symptoms.
If kids experience a higher quality of learning with just a nice view of the outdoors, imagine what would happen if kids actually learned outdoors!
There are many classroom design factors that negatively influence learning. Noise, temperature and seating arrangement are just a few. Kids are quite vulnerable to voices and the words that others say. Their brains are still developing and their ability to filter out distractions is limited. This noise in classrooms has been shown to negatively affect how kids learn and their ability to concentrate in the long term. These noise distractions significantly impact writing, reading, comprehension skill learning and overall academic performance.
If the temperature of a classroom or home study space is not comfortable for students, it could be a source of distraction that hinders learning. We’ve all experienced classrooms that are freezing during winter months and quite warm during fall and spring, and these temperatures can drastically change a child’s ability to learn and concentrate.
Seating arrangement is a source of distraction for students because it is so repetitive. Research suggests that learning in the same seat day after day is not what the brain needs to thrive. Whether the seating arrangement is in semicircles, clusters or rows, it doesn’t matter – kids simply need new, creative ways to open their minds to learning.
Researchers report children who were exposed to outdoor education had improvements in concentration, behavior, and learning, while teachers experienced better health, wellbeing, and job satisfaction. Due to COVID-19, there is an urgent need to reimagine PreK-12 schools in order to reopen safely and equitably. Repurposing outdoor spaces is a cost-effective way to reduce the burden on indoor classrooms while providing fresh air, hands-on learning opportunities, and the health benefits associated with increased access to nature.
"School districts have a time and space problem—with so many hours in the school day and so many square feet inside the school buildings," said Craig Strang, the associate director of teaching and learning at the Lawrence Hall of Science at the University of California, Berkeley. Creating outdoor learning spaces for children will heighten their senses, open their minds and boost their ability to concentrate and learn new things. And in the wake of the Coronavirus pandemic, kids need safe, outdoor spaces to continue their education. With outdoor learning spaces, the sky is literally the limit, and kids will gain a new confidence in themselves and the way they learn.