From the August 2019 issue

The Power of Outdoor Education for Kids in Schools

Spending time in nature can boost kids' capacity to learn – but it can be tough to come by in a screen-saturated world. Here's how some local schools are trying to provide outdoor education for kids.

Two girls playing in a pond

Ginger and Michael Camilleri love going for walks with their children, Isabella, 8, and Michael, 7. It’s an opportunity for this Livonia family to reconnect, unplug and practice mindfulness – breathing in the fresh air, admiring the trees and observing the birds around them.

“We also love looking for animal tracks or just simply being still and listening,” Ginger says.

The family has always had an appreciation for Mother Nature, she says. But she’s noticed an increase in her children’s interest in the environment – and the world around them – as a direct result of their experiences as students at Hoover Elementary School. At this K-4 Livonia public school, Isabella and Michael both take part in the Hoover Eco-Action Community.

“Our eco-action team provides support for teachers to implement outdoor activities and lessons on various topics, from recycling to plant identification to insect life cycles,” says Shawn M. Grose, who’s volunteered as the Eco-Schools USA director at Hoover since the program started there in 2014.

This global pre-K-12 program, run by the National Wildlife Federation, is part of a growing effort to connect kids to nature with something

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NWF calls “Green STEM.” It’s based on research that kids who have environmental exposure and education outperform their peers – and wind up “more interested in and enthusiastic about” science, tech, engineering and math, its website notes.

The evidence keeps growing, too. This spring, the University of Illinois released a study that found “nature boosts learning in eight distinct ways,” the college said in a statement, from increasing self-discipline, motivation and fitness to relieving stress.

Over at Hoover, Grose – who works closely with the NWF – says many activities also coincide with the science curriculum at each grade level.

“Classes often use our outdoor classroom to engage in reading and writing activities,” he explains. “Biodiversity gardens also enhance our science curriculum by giving students and teachers a place to study plants, insects and animals. In addition, each year we create activities to get our students outdoors.”

Nature’s role in learning

Educators have long understood the importance of “getting our students outdoors.” With the steady growth of technology, increased screen time and jam-packed schedules, teachers are moving forward to make nature, the environment and getting outside a top priority.

Jessica Scally, director and teacher at Grace Lutheran Preschool in Romeo, believes it’s vital to introduce a love for the outdoors at a young age.

“Nature engages children,” Scally says. “They are curious, and nature facilitates their curiosity – and they think of great questions.”

Students at Grace go outside every day, weather permitting. “It is essential that we go outside to run, jump, play, work on social emotional development, large motor skills and explore the playground,” Scally says. Math, science and vocabulary building takes place outdoors, too.

Nature also comes into the building as students examine rocks under a magnifying glass and add water to them to see how their appearance changes. Seashells are sorted and children feel textures and learn about the environment the shells are from. Kids are also responsible for watering the classroom plant. And, in the spring, they plant seeds and learn about the plant life cycle.

“If we can get the young ones outside and build their love of nature at a young age, then hopefully it will stick with them throughout the years,” Scally says. “No one can sit in one room (throughout) the entire day. We need to move and explore. We need fresh air. Taking our learning outside adds an element that instantly makes learning fascinating.”

Or, as Albert Einstein once put it, “Look deep into nature, and then you will understand everything better.”

Grose, who’s also the dad of a fourth grader at Hoover, as well as a sixth grader, likewise points to scientific minds and studies that show the value of nature-based education.

“Our children are born scientists with an innate curiosity that connects them to nature,” he says. “Students need time to explore parks, get dirty, classify life forms, observe the weather, take calculated risks, develop relationships through unstructured play, build forts, climb trees, look at the stars and figure out where they fit into the natural world.

“Rooting our children in nature makes them happier, healthier and more confident adults,” he continues. “Having a nature-based program at school helps to decrease test anxiety and improves comprehension. Scientific research supports the benefits of nature-based education programs. We need to rally around the research and bring outdoor education to every school in our country.”

Project-based learning

At the beginning of the 2018-19 school year, Parkview Elementary in Novi unveiled a new outdoor learning center. It has three independent spaces: an outdoor classroom with a picnic table, stumps for stadium-style seating, an outdoor chalkboard and more; a “serenity space” featuring trees, butterfly bushes, water elements and large rocks for children to sit on; and a vegetable garden.

Now, one year later, Parkview teachers Carly Musa and Bridget Zahradnik are thrilled to see the impact the center has had on students.

Zahradnik says it’s given the students a sense of responsibility and appreciation.

“Students are getting hands-on experiences with gardening and understanding where food comes from,” Zahradnik says. “It also takes daily care to grow a garden, which teaches children many life skills.”

That includes service learning, she says, since some of the food grown is donated. Students discover where their crops go and why it’s important.

Musa has seen life skills blossom, too. “(We had students) choose what to grow in their garden while learning all about plants and life cycles,” she says. “As problems arise, students have to figure out a way to solve them. Last year we had fungus on our corn, and students researched to figure out how to fix the problem. Natural things occur often, and students know it’s their job to fix it.”

These are experiences similar to those reported by Hoover Elementary.

“This past school year, we had the kindergarten classes plant and harvest green beans,” Grose says. “They used their senses to smell, touch and taste the beans. We also planted mini pumpkins to enhance an existing first grade pumpkin science unit of study. The first grade team picked, dissected and counted the seeds of each pumpkin. This year, a third grade class completed research on plants and insects found in our biodiversity gardens and used the information to make signposts to educate others.”

He adds, “This past year, our media specialist taught all students about the importance of pollinators in our gardens by implementing various reading, research and writing activities at each grade level. In honor of World Bee Day, students made ‘bee kind to nature’ posters to hang throughout the school.”

Beyond academics

Scally says she’s noticed a difference in today’s kids compared to those who may have received more outside time 10 or 20 years ago.

“Fine motor skills are definitely not what they were years ago,” she says, adding that children start school with very low fine motor skills. A lot of time is spent strengthening those muscles in order for kids to properly hold a pencil, she explains.

“Everything is interlocked,” she says. “Parents may see their child climbing on the play structure and think, ‘They are wasting valuable class time.’ When I see a child climbing the play structure, I see fine motor muscles being strengthened, large motor muscles working, self-confidence increasing, social skills hard at work, language skills being worked on, and math and science can even be incorporated. There are a slew of learning concepts going on that we should embrace, encourage and facilitate for children.”

Parents – and students – seem to be busier than ever, too. Packed schedules can also impact kids’ learning and time outdoors.

“Children today have less time at home, less free unstructured, imaginative time – both of which are vital to creativity, invention, deep thought and reflection,” says Helena Mitchell, the early childhood pedagogical chair at Detroit Waldorf School.

“Initial boredom leads to creativity if children are allowed space to develop – such creativity feeds literacy, inspires children to write and create stories, plays, poetry and determine their own approach to problem-solving,” she adds. “Curiosity is essential for so many developmental stages in childhood and in life. Without empty time to just ‘be’ and ponder, we lose the natural curiosity that we are intended to have and which we need to succeed and thrive.”

Detroit Waldorf students participate in gardening work, tapping into the school’s maple tree or spending time in community gardens in the city. Early childhood students rake leaves, sweep, water plants and feed birds. Older students participate in class trips where they may camp, hike, work on farms and more.

Groups beyond school walls are trying to step up early nature exposure, too.

Firefly Forest School, for instance, offers nature-based preschool, camp and after-school programs for elementary students in metro Detroit. Director and owner Bailey Lininger says the southeast Michigan-based program is inspired by the “forest school” movement, which has been popular for decades in Northern Europe and recently gaining momentum in the United States.

“The work we do is heavily focused on skill-building: honing our fine and gross motor skills, working on our social-emotional skills, practicing pre-literacy and pre-numeracy skills and more,” Lininger says. “We believe that the natural world is the best possible classroom for this kind of work – and that children learn best when they are given the chance to have first-hand experiences with the world around them.”

The goal is to root a preschool experience in the natural world, she says, and make learning “fun, meaningful, and authentic” for kids.

“We hope to provide all of our students with a foundational love of learning that will last them a lifetime, and a feeling of love for and stewardship over our precious planet.”

Putting nature in the budget

As natural playgrounds and nature-based programs become more popular, schools around southeast Michigan are finding ways to offer students these opportunities without breaking the bank.

Fundraising, donations (from parents, staff and the community), grant writing and PTA support are tried-and-true ways of securing financial help, sources say. In the case of the outdoor learning center at Parkview Elementary in Novi, for example, the PTO granted $15,000 of the project, says teacher Carly Musa, and $8,000 for a new garden space was fully funded by grants and donations.

Schools are also looking to alternative methods to put the outdoors in reach.

Helena Mitchell, early childhood pedagogical chair at Detroit Waldorf School, suggests using basic equipment and tools – brooms, jump ropes, hula hoops, balls and donated craft materials – for kids to play with during dedicated outside time.

“Less is more, allowing children to use their imaginations to truly play and immerse in their natural environment,” she says.

Jessica Scally, director and teacher at Grace Lutheran Preschool in Romeo, suggests finding gently used items at the Salvation Army or creating a wish list for school families to donate to.

“Everyone has a talent,” she says. “Get to know the families in your school. Find out who can build things and utilize them. Find the artsy ones and utilize them. You will never know who can help unless you share your thoughts with the school. You will be surprised how many people will jump at the chance to step up and help out.”

“No one can sit in one room the entire day. We need to move and explore. We need fresh air. Taking our learning outside adds an element that instantly makes learning fascinating.”

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