The benefits of outdoor learning

Amy Petrikova, Principal Planner at Nexus Planning, discusses how the global pandemic has made it crucial to prioritise outdoor learning environments and their integration into schools and education.

Mental health issues amongst children are rising. A survey carried out by the NHS last year showed that the proportion of children experiencing a mental disorder has increased from one in nine in 2017 to one in six in July 2020.

Whilst this is due to a number of factors, we are becoming increasingly aware of the strong links between our environment and our physical and mental health.

Children are engaging in more sedentary and isolated activities for longer periods of time, often glued to TV screens and phones (and taking on the social pressures that come with it. It is therefore no wonder that the time children spend outdoors has significantly declined over the last few decades – a clear contributor to mental health issues in young people.

There is increasing evidence from research that time spent outdoors and connecting with nature reduces stress and anxiety, creating healthy levels of serotonin from exposure to natural sunlight (vitamin D), all of which leads to positive impacts on health and wellbeing.

The global pandemic has emphasised the important role that the environment has on our physical and mental health, with prolonged time spent inside further impacting wellbeing. Not all children are lucky enough to have a family garden and may not have easy access to green spaces or parks.

As it stands, we risk denying children the opportunities they need for good health and optimal brain development and potentially creating a generation with mental health issues.

So how do we find a way to give better access to outdoor spaces for all children, and for longer periods of time?

Schools have the opportunity to not only provide a safe learning environment for children, but to positively contribute towards their health and wellbeing by getting children outdoors. This means moving away from the principle of a classroom having four walls and creating environments that provide the opportunity to take lessons outside.

The principle of ‘outdoor learning’ is not new. As the benefits have come to fruition over recent years, it has started to be looked at more seriously. It has, however, taken the pandemic to accelerate awareness of the benefits, alongside the need to social distance.

Outdoor learning is very different to outdoor play and allows structured lessons to be taken outside. It provides children with the opportunity to actively learn, connecting and engaging with the environment, as well as providing increased exposure to that all important Vitamin D.

This could include outdoor growing, investigating wildlife, compost making or simply creating a space to hold a lesson amongst nature. Outdoor learning is not only restricted to STEM subjects, the introduction of arts spaces and amphitheatres also provides opportunities for open air productions.

By thinking outside of the four walls, we are working with schools to help create fantastic outdoor learning environments, demonstrating that outdoor lessons do not have to be restricted to PE.

We have been working on a number of exciting projects with the Girls’ Day School Trust – the UK’s leading family of independent girls’ schools – including Sutton High School.

One such proposal for this school includes the creation of an outdoor learning terrace that allows a teacher with a class of 18-24 children to take lessons there. Planters will create space for children to grow their own fruit and vegetables, facilities will be provided for compost making and creating new habitats (such as bumble bee hotels), as well as the introduction of a graphic paving system for outdoor maths. The learning terrace has been carefully designed to include natural materials and lots of greenery to maximise health and wellbeing benefits, and generally provide a calming environment.

As we see ourselves in a very different world with the ever-increasing pressures of utilising new technologies (especially during the pandemic and its aftermath), the health and wellbeing of children should be at the forefront of our considerations.

It is essential we shape the environment in which children grow and learn.  We need to arm them with the tools required to experience the best physical and mental wellbeing possible, allowing them to form positive relationships with people around them, and most importantly with themselves.

Education is an important sector for Nexus Planning. We are excited to be able to work with schools to create new and exciting outdoor learning environments that will better the health and wellbeing of the next generation. It is an initiative that we strongly believe in and are proud to be part of.