Maths next to a wildlife reserve? English under the shade of a gum tree? What about a science class wading through the wetlands?
The latter is not uncommon but new evidence is emerging that nature-based learning has a multitude of benefits for children that extend beyond a real-life botany class collecting wildflowers.
A University of South Australia review has found growing evidence that taking the classroom outdoors may improve physical activity, learning, mental health and wellbeing, engagement in class and social skills.
In a paper published in Environmental Education Research, UniSA PhD candidate Nicole Miller and her colleagues have summarised 20 studies of nature-based learning from across the globe over the past 18 years.
“The evidence suggests that taking the classroom outdoors could be a great way to include more incidental physical activities into a child’s day,” Miller says.
The link between learning in nature and lower obesity rates is not new, but more significant than ever, given that only 19 per cent of Australian children are meeting the World Health Organization’s recommended levels of 60 minutes of moderate exercise a day.
“Globally, the figures are even worse, with a recent study of 12 countries showing that just 4.8 per cent of children aged between 5-19 years are doing moderate to vigorous exercise for an hour each day.”
WHO estimates that at least 340 million children and teenagers are overweight or obese, including 24 per cent of Australian children (ABS statistics), increasing their risk of type 2 diabetes and heart disease later in life.
Nature-based learning can range from holding normal classes outdoors, to more strenuous activities such as constructing shelters, and group games.
Apart from the physical benefits, the evidence suggests that nature-based learning is more enjoyable and hands-on than in a traditional classroom, so children may be more likely to retain more knowledge and stay focused throughout the lesson.
Learning about the environment while in nature is an obvious benefit, but the researchers also referenced studies showing the mental health benefits in adults who had spent significant time in nature in their childhood.
“Previous research has found links that suggest adults with a low exposure to nature in childhood had significantly poorer mental health and a greater risk of psychiatric disorders,” Miller says.
A 2017 study of 48 children in Germany found that children’s stress levels significantly improved after nature-based learning in the forest. Also, a 2018 US study reported that learning outcomes improved students’ focus and behaviour.
“While the evidence is growing, more research is needed because it is still unclear which elements of nature-based learning, such as type, duration, frequency, and location, provide the most benefits,” Miller says.