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Tiny Forest & science education: how children benefit from learning outdoors

During the COVID-19 pandemic, it became evident to many people what researchers have studied for years: contact with nature is vital to our mental and physical wellbeing. But what about the role of nature in child development? Is outdoor learning beneficial for school children? Can taking a science class outside improve pupils’ academic performance?

We discuss the research that shows the positive impact learning outdoors can have on children. We also share advice for educators keen to take learning outside, ensuring their students can benefit from nature. 

 

“Kids are so starved for nature that...even this pretty small, pathetic dose helps them function remarkably better”

                ―Dr. Ming Kuo, University of Illinois

Educational attainment

In 2005, the American Institutes of Research submitted a report to the Californian Department of Education presenting results of a study conducted with two groups of 255 Year 6 students. One group participated in an outdoor educational programme, the other continued learning in the traditional classroom setting.

The results of the research were astounding: children who attended outdoor classes raised their science attainment by 27% and the increase in science knowledge was maintained several weeks following the programme participation. A similar study showed that secondary school pupils in Sweden who attended outdoor biology and maths lessons outdoors were able to remember the material better when compared to the pupils in the indoor classes.

Child behaviour

For those concerned about children’s behaviour outside the traditional classroom setting, researchers observed that a green environment actually has a calming effect on children.

A 2018 study from the University of Illinois revealed that third-grade students (England Year 4) who had their biology class outdoors were significantly more engaged and focused in their subsequent classes than the group of students who had their biology lesson indoors. Even for children with an attention deficit, it was found that green outdoor settings appeared to reduce ADHD symptoms leading to less impulsive behaviours.

Outdoor learning has also proven to boost the development of people skills in school children, such as critical and creative thinking, inquiry, problem-solving, communication with peers and adults, as a group of researchers from Swansea University observed. Finally, pupils who participated in outdoor learning programmes have shown to develop stronger pro-environmental behaviours, in comparison to their classroom peers.

Influence on teachers

Outdoor learning has also proven to have a positive impact on teachers. Researchers from Swansea University found that taking the curriculum outside on a daily basis not only improved pupils’ attitudes to learning but also the overall wellbeing of both the students and the staff, with teachers reporting greater job satisfaction. The Gaining Ground report confirmed these findings in their study: outdoor learning helps educators regain their passion for teaching.

Ongoing nature experiences in familiar settings

As Stephen R. Kellert, a revered professor of social ecology at the Yale School of Forestry & Environmental Studies, argued, “direct, ongoing experiences of nature in relatively familiar settings remains a vital source for children’s physical, emotional, and intellectual development” (2004).

A key element of this is the influence of ongoing engagements with nature in the child’s closest surroundings. With nearly 85% of the UK’s population living in urban areas and increased usage of modern technology, only a fifth of UK children aged 8–12 years are adequately connected to nature, as the RSPB unveiled in a three-year study.

This is also due to the fact that a third of UK households don’t have access to greenspaces close to where they live. There are fundamental disparities in public access to greenspaces disproportionately affecting children from Black, Asian and minority ethnic backgrounds and those living on a lower income, when compared to their white peers with higher household income.

Tiny Forest – bringing nature into communities  

Earthwatch Europe is on a mission to tackle these issues and make outdoor learning not only part of the national curriculum for science but also all other subjects. This is with a focus on creating access to nature for those children who don’t have sufficient greenspace in their surroundings.

Through our Tiny Forest project, Earthwatch equips teachers and students with the space, confidence and resources necessary to support outdoor learning. Pupils of all stages get a hands-on experience planting native tree species in the vicinity of their schools, becoming aware of the importance of nature around them.

As a Tiny Forest grows, students engage in citizen science, where they measure the health of our natural resources around four key themes. These are biodiversity, carbon capture, thermal comfort, and flood mitigation – all of which can be linked to STEM learning. Earthwatch provides support with planting, scientific monitoring as well as a variety of cross-curricular activities that teachers can then independently run with their students.

For one of our Tiny Forest participants at Avenue End Primary in Glasgow, taking part in the project has given her pupils “responsibility and ownership of an area close to them and covers many areas of the curriculum in terms of sustainability, science and outdoor learning,” Nicola Muir, Principal Teacher at Avenue End, observed.

As Liz Latham, Principal at Queensmead Primary Academy, Leicester, told us, “The explicit learning around pupils carrying out their citizen scientist role has developed pupils’ knowledge and skills. Most importantly for our pupils has been the development of personal skills such as empathy, resilience, problem-solving and a sense of responsibility.”

Designing an outdoor class

Tiny Forest is one example of how Earthwatch contributes to providing children with the opportunities to observe, experience and engage with the world around them. As Tiny Forest shows, strips of greenery can be found and created in any area. But designing a class outdoors can seem like a challenging experience, especially for the teachers who are not used to taking students outside, or those with limited access to outdoor space.

Through various free resources, including educator webinars, training videos, activity ideas, lesson plans, and other learning material on our education platform, Earthwatch helps teachers gain skills and confidence in taking science classes outdoors.

We empower teachers to think creatively about how to utilise the smallest of green spaces to spark curiosity in real-world environmental sciences. Why not get stuck in and see for yourself that nature can be a great teaching assistant?

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