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How the Outdoors Facilitate Student Learning and Improve Wellbeing

Updated: Nov 10, 2022

Connect Back to Your Roots this Earth Month!

Kikori’s mission is to help bring experiential, Social Emotional Learning activities into the classroom - as well as support students in connecting to the natural world outside of the classroom! With Earth Day happening on April 22nd, we wanted to explore...

Why does nature matter? What is nature to us, and has that changed over time? Why is it as healing as everyone says it is?

Hi, this is Francesca here! In order to answer the questions listed above, I will share with you three great TEDTalks that explain the value of nature, great Kikori activities to get your students outdoors, and some extra resources that nature helps your students enhance their Executive Functional skills!

1. Roots to Branches with Mary Skopec: How Nature can be Used as a Learning Laboratory

Mary Skopec is the executive director of the Iowa Lakeside Laboratory, a part of the University of Iowa. This laboratory is a hands-on lab experience that promotes the study of nature, in nature, as all of its courses are run completely outside (rain or shine!). Whichever way nature wants to present itself dictates what you’re learning about at any given moment, so the lesson plans change day-to-day.

This sort of ‘learning by observation’ reminded me of all my years of science classes, as the fundamentals of science are based on this sort of inquiry. The name of this inquiry you ask? Skopec claims this sort of outdoor experiential learning embraces the idea of authentic inquiry, or students asking questions that both they and the teachers cannot answer. This leaves room for the imagination to conjure up some sort of idea based on their previous knowledge or surroundings. It also breeds a strong awareness of the environment around you.

Create environmental awareness with your students with Nature Check-In on the Kikori App!

An outdoor education promotes different types of auditory, visual, hands-on), engaging more than one of the senses at any given time. This allows students to embed memories in their learning, and build up experiences in nature.

Need an outdoor activity to engage your students in the 5 senses? Check out this Five Senses Mindfulness Walk Activity on the Kikori App!

Mary Skopec finishes off her Ted Talk by concluding that “Education is more than just gating knowledge, it's about the transformation of the student”, which is something Kikori firmly believes in.

This next TEDTalk is about the beautification of school playgrounds to create lush, natural spaces called ‘outdoor learning environments for children in daycare. Nilda Cosco has a warm soul and talks about her work photographing young children playing in these outdoor learning environments. She gives many heartfelt anecdotes (I recommend watching the video!) about children using their dynamic environment in the way it's intended to; promoting curiosity, teamwork with one another, experiential learning, as well as motor skills. A great point she brings up early on is that exposing children to nature at a young age decreases their fear of nature (weather, bugs, etc.). This is something that the next TEDTalk mentions as well, which I find extremely fascinating.

Critical Thinking Prompts for Students:

How has humanity’s relationship with nature changed over time? Why do you think this is? What are ways you can think of to combat this disconnection?

Frances Krusekopf is a mother from British Columbia who found inspiration in the kindergarten program she enrolled her child in while spending 4 months in Germany. A “waldkindergarten” or forest kindergarten is run (you guessed it) completely outdoors using nature as a third teacher. She was inspired by this waldkindergarten and what it did for her child, so already being a part of the Board of Education served her well in starting up her own outdoor kindergarten program!

Krusekopf brings up similar points to the other two TEDTalks, how spending significant amounts of time outside promotes childrens’ independence and problem-solving skills, as well as working together towards a greater outcome. On top of the obvious strength and agility that comes from physically moving around outside, Krusekopf stresses the importance of taking “age-appropriate risks”, and the students learning from their mistakes without the intervention of an adult. She briefly talks about cultivating this awareness of the

environments, which I think is a point a lot of people might miss. When I first thought about nature’s positive effect on children, I didn't think of the mutually beneficial relationship they might have with one another.

To get your students (of all ages) thinking about their environment and its importance, facilitate Eco Awareness.

Children learning to organize, cooperate and delegate tasks between one another is something that genuinely stuck out to me. Just kids organizing kids? Without any adults?! How amazing! The creative freedom…the ability for leadership qualities to come out… the ability for all children to use and be appreciated for their individual strengths? Magic!

When compared to a normal kindergarten class, there are gains in 4 areas:

  1. Locomotor skills

  2. Assertiveness

  3. Cooperation

  4. Self-control

Krusekopf clearly outlines these skills gained in a ‘forest kindergarten’, when compared to a normal kindergarten class. If you're looking for a more detailed/anecdotal background on each of these points check out the TEDTalk here!

Thriving Through Nature: Fostering Children’s Executive Function Skills

These TEDTalks inspired me to look more deeply into this, from a research standpoint. I discovered this paper written by Chirara D’Amore from the Children and Nature Network, which is basically a field guide on something new to me; Executive function.

Executive function describes an interrelated set of mental processes that allow people to retain and work with information, focus attention, filter out distractions, problem-solve, and shift mental gears. They thoroughly describe what executive functions are, and why they are important at the beginning of the paper. There are 3 dimensions of these executive functions; Working Memory, Self Control and Inhibition, and Mental flexibility. It is super easy to read, and an organized paper to sift through if you have the time! D’Amore breaks down different nature activities based on age for children and adolescents that promote these executive functions. For example, I was interested to see what this paper recommended for children aged 7-12 years old and it listed:

  • Physical Activities

  • Planning Activities

  • Music/ Singing/ Dance

  • Social Activities (like hiking or camping)

The camp counselor in me is waiting to speak up! All of these categories are most definitely included in most summer camps across the country, and not only this, but you can incorporate them in the classroom as well! This article provides great examples of each category and age group (categories differ per age), from infants to 18-year-olds. While reading this I gained a lot of background knowledge in outdoor activities, and it reminded me of the activities we handpicked and combined into our Earth Month SEL playlist! This resource would be great for students of all ages, and groups of all kinds. Group facilitation is not only an important part of being a child, but what about adults? I’m sure we all could use some outdoor infusion in our daily lives, and those benefits are not to be ignored.

What are YOUR favorite outdoors activities? Is there a way you could bring your favorite activities to your students? Share with us in the comments!

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