What Is Outdoor Education?

All of us have participated in some form of outdoor education during our school careers. Some of our fondest school memories might even include these experiences even if we didn’t call them by that title. Remember your favorite field trips? Trips to the zoo, a museum, or an aquarium all count as outdoor education. How about PE class? Whenever students can move out of the classroom and into a more natural space, outdoor education can occur.

So if outdoor education is a newer term for field trips and simply “getting outdoors,” why is it so important today? As schools become more concerned about budget cuts and meeting academic standards, field trips, and even PE classes, are seeing a decline. In a 2006 School Health Policies and Practices Study, only 3.8% of participating elementary schools provided daily PE class. Eight years later, the number of elementary schools providing daily PE class actually decreased slightly to 3.6% (2014 SHPPS results). Furthermore, research shows parents are not taking their children outside to play. According to a TIME article, almost half of 8,950 preschoolers surveyed do not play outside daily, and this number decreases when gender and ethnicity are considered. In light of these numbers, it seems even more important for schools to provide outdoor education opportunities whenever possible.

What are the benefits of Outdoor Education?

Ray Beatty, Stuart Hall Lower School PE teacher, recently sat down to discuss the benefits of outdoor education at the elementary level. In his daily PE classes, Coach Beatty’s main goal is to get the students outside as much as possible, even using class time for sledding during the winter months. Now in his third year at the school, he notes the growth he has seen in the students during this outdoor time.

  • Interdisciplinary learning. When he takes the students outside, Coach Beatty isn’t just teaching PE class. He is covering science, history, and language arts as well. When students walk by a briar patch or see a nest high in a tree, the class pauses to think about what types of animals live in these habitats. After reading non-fiction stories of survival, the 4th grade class discussed with Coach Beatty how they might survive in the “wilderness” of the school playground. Using pool noodles to build tents, they had to create a campsite and consider where they would find food and water. All these experiences helped to deepen the learning happening in the regular classroom and provided more opportunities for hands-on study.
  • Teamwork and communication. Coach Beatty uses his outdoor space to teach important life skills as well. Students work in teams to complete a scavenger hunt for plants. Partners help guide their blindfolded friends through a trail. These experiences help students build their communication skills and learn to work as a team.
  • More engaged learners. Perhaps the biggest benefit Coach Beatty sees is the excitement of the students to get outdoors. Even students who hated PE class before their time at Stuart Hall come in excited and ready to explore. Through the use of projects and hands-on examples, Coach Beatty is able to provide something for everyone. “Sometimes kids who feel less athletic might dread coming to PE, but by connecting to the classroom through the outdoor program, everyone can find something to be excited about.”

Want to hear more about the benefits of outdoor education? Check out this research conducted by the University of Wisconsin at Stevens Point or this personal blog post from a public school teacher.