Wednesday, June 3, 2015


Outdoor Play Benefits Academic Learning

I spent hours more than usual researching and writing this article.  The benefits of outside play seem intuitive, but there is actually a lot of research about it too!  It is a subject that I am passionate about, and I feel like it is too difficult to find good information about it.  I would love to hear your perspective on it too!  Today I'm sharing information about how outdoor play and learning benefit children...even in the classroom!

There is a frightening trend in many schools to decrease the amount of recess and outdoor time in favor of more academic instruction and behavior remediation.  This has to stop!  I have heard teachers and administrators explain that it is because we have higher standards that require more time to teach.  Ironically, research is actually showing that test scores improve with more time outside!  I also know other teachers and administrators who firmly believe that more outdoor time is good for students!

My own experience (as a public school teacher and a homeschooling parent) is that spending time outside helps children academically, socially, intellectually, and in many other ways that don't end with a nice "-ially."  Children learn better, feel better, and get along with others (including adults!) better when they spend time outside.  Children (and adults!) can self-regulate ADHD and SPD tendencies better when they have had enough time to play outside.  I could write an entire post on my personal observations of the amazing ways being outdoors helps children, but the rest of this post is going to be about research that is also showing that children need more time outside.

Research shows the benefits of outside play are overwhelming!  Just contacting nature (like seeing trees out your window) can reduce stress and lead to fewer illnesses. (2)  There is even a bacteria in dirt that triggers an anti-depressant response in you! (9) Children who help in school gardens improve in scientific learning and have healthier eating habits! (4) Other benefits for children (documented by studies) from spending time in nature include:

* Greater physical activity (4)
* Greater mental health and emotional regulation (4)
* Improvements in motor skills (4)
* Healthier blood pressure and cholesterol levels (5)
* Being more fit and lean (6)
* Have stronger immune systems (6)
* Have more active imaginations (6)
* Play better with other children (6)

Some types of outdoor play seem better than other types.  One study (1) found that outdoor play in a natural forested environment improved children's balance, coordination, and other motor skills significantly more than the same motor skills in children who only had access to school playgrounds.  Many other proponents of "outdoor time" simply want kids to be able to play on playgrounds for more than 20 minutes a day.

While playing outside has plenty of health and social benefits for children, there is now research evidence that playing and learning outdoors also benefits academic progress(7)  Here are just a few of the ways that outdoor experiences can benefit children in a classroom (7):

* better performance in math, science, reading, and social studies
* improved behavior in the classroom
* higher scores on standardized tests
* increased motivation and and enthusiasm to learn in students
* reduced ADHD symptoms
* measurable academic improvements in low-income and under-resourced students
* better concentration
* sharper memory
* better attendance

There is an interesting series of schools in the United Kingdom that are taking advantage of "Forest Schools" to promote a variety in their education.  The truly fantastic thing about these forest schools is that the children who participated in them improved in the following areas (3):

* Confidence
* Social Skills
* Language and Communication
* Motivation and Concentration
* Physical and Motor Skills
* Knowledge and Understanding

As I read about these forest schools, I could not help thinking that if a child's concentration, confidence, language, and comprehension skills are improving in the outdoor atmosphere, that improvement will certainly transfer over to academic subjects in the indoor classroom!  Teachers who used the forest schools told about case studies where children who did not work well with others became healthy collaborators and shy children took on leadership roles after learning in the forest school.  These are exactly the types of skills that we would hope all our children learn!

The frustrating fact is that for many teachers, in order to get any more time outside, they must find a way to tie it in to their curriculum.  In a way, this can actually be a good thing.  Join me in a few days for dozens of ideas of ways to create learning and play experiences in a small space or on a limited budget!

In the meantime, I'd love to know how you feel about outdoor play and outdoor education!  If you're a teacher, how much time do you get to spend outside?  Would you like more?  Do you personally see a difference in your students when they spend time outside?  What are your favorite benefits of outside play?

Sources & Additional Reading:


** My favorite article on the subject...if you only have time to read one of these reports, start with #7!!

I may share at any of these parties!

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Emma @ Our Whimsical Days said...

Since all this has been scientifically proven, I don't understand why schools aren't implementing more outdoor and active play into the schedule. In fact, teachers still use recess as a reward, taking it away as a punishment. Sharing this!

Carla at Preschool Powol Packets said...

It baffles me, Emma! I think that it's just hard for teachers and administrator in the face of so much academic pressure to insist on outdoor play time. Thanks for sharing!!