I was at a Maine Teacher of the Year event when a colleague leaned toward me with a smile. “Oh, you do the nature stuff, right?” she asked. “That sounds so fun!”
I smiled and nodded, cringing inside. It’s so much more than fun, I wanted to say. I teach critical reading and powerful writing. I teach literature and journalism and rhetoric. I just do it through a connection to nature. But the room was noisy, and there was no time to explain.
It was not her fault. Most teachers assume outdoor learning is for fun, reflection, and personal growth while rigorous academic work happens inside. Look at the design of just about any public school, and you will get the message loud and clear: Serious analytical thinking is an indoor activity.
This assumption persists despite the expanding body of research establishing that a connection to nature is essential for young people, and that opportunities to thrive are diminished as childhoods are spent increasingly indoors and in front of screens. This can amount to a nature-deficit disorder that, as the Children and Nature Network explains, “contributes to a diminished use of the senses, attention difficulties, conditions of obesity, and higher rates of emotional and physical illnesses.”
These costs are most acutely experienced by children growing up in impoverished urban areas. Because of how gentrification and housing discrimination push many families of color away from parks and green spaces, these costs are felt disproportionately by children of color.
I see this in my work as an instructional and leadership coach. I asked elementary school principals in one Connecticut city, “What is your greatest concern for your students?” Many principals described worrying that their students rarely had chances to play outside—to the detriment of their physical fitness. One principal even described students struggling to get up a small hill during fire drills.
“What is the hardest thing about being a kid here?” I asked high school students in Manchester, N.H., at another meeting.
There was a feeling of lightness that would sweep through the class as blue sky unfurled above us.
“It’s so hard to just hang out outside,” one student answered. The high schoolers described their parents’ fear of used needles in parks, and their own fears about letting their younger siblings play on the street.
I feel tremendous sadness at the thought of all the other kids, parents, and educators across the nation facing similar fears. The chance to play, explore, and learn in the natural world is a vital part of growing up, and our students are missing out on both the physical and mental benefits.
When we address privilege and inequity, access to nature should be high on our list. Research suggests that regular contact with nature—even in the context of a small schoolyard or garden—can improve students’ physical fitness, mental health, academic achievement, and cognitive, social-emotional and motor functions. However, educators often concentrate on the inequities we can address within school walls and leave nature out of the discussion. We hold all students to high standards, make opportunities for student voice, provide social-emotional support, and design culturally-responsive instruction. These efforts are essential for making our schools the engines of equity that they should be. But why assume all of our most serious work needs to happen inside a building?
Had I been quicker, that’s the question I would have asked the teacher who referred to this vital work as “fun nature stuff.” I was a high school teacher then, teaching a course designed for students who had failed English or were at risk of dropping out. Our primary text was ecologist Tom Wessels’ Reading the Forested Landscape: A Natural History of New England, a college-level book with rich sentences and academic vocabulary. Students in my class demonstrated their understanding both during field exercises and in writing. They read works by great nature writers, produced their own creative pieces, and participated in service-learning projects that demanded complex research and communication.
I was fighting for equity by pushing my students to read sophisticated texts, write clearly and powerfully, and synthesize information. By incorporating nature into our learning, we were not neglecting rigor in favor of fun.
But this is what I remember most: When we walked through the dim school hallway and out the door, there was a feeling of lightness that would sweep through the class as blue sky unfurled above us. There was joy as we walked out onto the grass—and that joy was a form of equity as well.
Providing students with opportunities to connect with nature is not an additional challenge, separate from focusing on equity in terms of high standards, student voice, or responsive curriculum; it can and should support these goals.
School leaders should take the easy first step of supporting teachers in getting students outside. Teachers can find opportunities for outdoor learning by asking themselves these questions:
Do any of my units or standards lend themselves to an activity that can happen outside? Could my students gather data outside, which could be analyzed or graphically displayed? Could they make observations outside to provide material for writing, music, or art? Or find questions outside to be answered through scientific or historical inquiry? Could they explore outside and map their observations in a second language? Or make our school grounds more green by engaging in a planting project?
If there is no suitable natural area outside of the school, consider planning a field trip. Remember that many activities described above can work even in small areas or school yards, on sidewalks among trees, or in a nearby community garden.
Let’s bring teaching outside the box that is the classroom and into the natural world. Outdoor learning is so much more than fun; it is one of the richest pathways to inquiry, communication, and problem-solving. Every child deserves the opportunity to see where that path takes them.
A version of this article appeared in the September 18, 2019 edition of Education Week as Let’s Bring Teaching Outdoors