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The recent travails of the pandemic have seen a renewed interest in outdoor classrooms, both in Australia and internationally, but there is a whole lot more than good ventilation to get excited about when it comes to outdoor classrooms. In fact, 84% of teachers in Australia believe outdoor learning led to greater engagement with learning among students. It’s not all about the benefits for students either: Teachers taking part in a 2019 UK study said outdoor learning led to an increased sense of job satisfaction and it was  “just what I came into teaching for”. This week on School Stream, we’re looking at the FAQs of outdoor learning, the benefits for students and some handy resources.

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What are outdoor classrooms?

Essentially, outdoor classrooms are spaces outside for learning. Outdoor classrooms are found all over the world in rural settings, urban settings, deep in the suburbs, and in just about any other environment you can think of. Some schools are lucky to have enough space on their grounds to create a designated outdoor classroom, while others head to a nearby park, garden or wild space.  Not only are teachers heading outside for subjects that are a natural fit for outdoor learning, such as PE, biology and earth sciences, but also for a variety of curriculum-based subjects including maths, science, art and humanities, to name a few.

6 benefits of learning outdoors

Why is it a good idea for students and teachers to move beyond the four walls of the classroom to learn? Well, how long do you have? There is an absolute laundry list of evidence-backed benefits for students – and teachers.

  1.   We all know what it’s like trying to wrangle a class of distracted students! Motivation and attention are the foundations on which the capacity to learn is built. Studies dating back as far as 1995 have found that spending time in nature enhances both motivation and attention. Another US study even found that once back indoors after learning outside, educators were able to teach for almost twice as long without having to pause and redirect students’ attention to the task at hand.
  1.   It’s also thought that stress, aka the ‘Enemy of Memory’, is reduced when students have the opportunity to study outdoors. We’ve all experienced the calming properties that flow come from communing with nature, and studies appear to back this up consistently. An experimental study in a secondary school found that even a window view of greenery resulted in lower heart rates and self-reported stress.
  1. Of course, all these elements combined – increased motivation, concentration, reduced stress and overall student and teacher happiness – lead to some pretty impressive academic results too.
  1.   We’ve all lamented the increased dependence of our students on technology and subsequent decline in time spent outside. Schools have found that taking the class outside can revive the joys of being ‘on an adventure’ – for students and teachers.

“When we are outdoors, the school feels like the setting of a storybook, and each time we take to the woods, it feels like starting an epic adventure. That spirit motivates my students to learn and explore and primes them for lessons that are rooted in what surrounds us.” (Alissa Alteri Shea in Edutopia)

  1. These positive outcomes aren’t restricted to younger students. Tweens and teens also benefit from taking classes outdoors. In addition to all the benefits experienced by younger students, tweens and teens may also experience better long-term retention of academic information when it is taught outdoors in a natural setting.
  1. We haven’t even scratched the surface of teamwork. Alissa Alteri Shea (from the same Edutopia article) gave this example of how outdoor classrooms can be the catalyst for teamwork in a way that would not have presented itself in a traditional classroom:

“In math, first graders learn to count in groups of 10s. For one activity, I sent my students running into the woods to collect 100 sticks in about 10 minutes. Partners worked together to accurately count and record the 10 bundles (with 10 sticks in each) that they created.” 

How much does it cost to build an outdoor classroom?

The cost of an outdoor classroom is governed by what you are hoping to build, making this a tricky question to answer. And while budget and bureaucracy can be barriers to creating outdoor learning spaces, if you have space – or access to space – and fresh air, you’re already well on your way. Outdoor classrooms can be as simple or elaborate as you like: They can be as simple as children using tree stumps as chairs to face a portable whiteboard or like the schools in New York City who took to their rooftops for classes during the pandemic. Or they can be as elaborate as a 12-sided outdoor classroom ‘tent’ nestled in amongst the trees, complete with a wood-burning clay stove.

Funding, grants and resources

Outdoor classroom gurus suggest linking up with both your parent community and the broader community to access expertise and resources when it comes to creating and developing an outdoor classroom.  For Australian schools, there are a few well established grant programs to seek out:

In 2021 / 2022 the Junior Landcare Grants program funded $2.9 million for projects across Australia.

See their website for more details, including case studies of successful projects.

You’ve no doubt come across Australian Schools Plus, who match donors with schools who are working to help children facing disadvantage succeed. Head to their website to see if your school is eligible for a grant opportunity.

 You can also contact your local council or government in your state or territory to see if they are offering any funding for outdoor classrooms.

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