DAVID SUZUKI: Learning in nature’s classroom

Getting students outside inspires them to learn more than being inside

Children belong outdoors. We know this intuitively, but now an extensive and ever-growing body of research supports it. Kids who spend time outside every day are healthier, happier, more creative, less stressed and more alert than those who don’t. Several recent studies even show time in nature or green space helps reduce ADHD symptoms.

But what about teachers who take children outdoors, contributing to their learning and growth? More alert, calm and creative students are a plus to them as educators. Could they also benefit as individuals from taking students outside every day?

With most of Canada’s educators back from the summer break, facing the many challenges that contribute to the country’s high rates of teacher attrition – from increasing class sizes to mounting curriculum expectations – it’s a good time to ask: How can “nature as classroom” support teacher well-being?

So far, only a few studies focus on the benefits of green time for teachers, but those indicate that teaching in nature has great effects. A study out of the U.K.’s King’s College London suggests teaching outdoors makes educators more confident and enthusiastic about their work, and more innovative in their teaching strategies. By extension, schools benefit from the leadership and influence of their teachers who take students outside.

Rob Ridley, field centre co-ordinator with Ontario’s Peel District School Board, says he has seen many educators gain confidence and renew their interest in teaching simply from taking their classes outdoors.

“Going outside takes away the boundaries of your classroom walls,” he says. “It opens you up to new ideas and lesson plans. You’ll step outside to study science or social studies, and suddenly you’ll see ways to connect it to math or language arts.”

Hopi Martin, who teaches at the Toronto District School Board’s Forest Valley Outdoor Education Centre, agrees: “Teaching outdoors demands that we respond to the wonder of students and opportunities that arise. I could have a beautiful lesson on tree identification prepared that gets totally derailed by the discovery of ants on a tree. Going outside has made me a stronger, more innovative, more resilient teacher.”

For Michael Mendoza, a teacher-librarian at Wilmington Elementary School in Toronto who regularly takes students outdoors, it’s seeing “an immediate absorption of knowledge, and the students’ contagious eagerness and curiosity” that refreshes and inspires him as an educator. On a personal note, he adds, “Being outside makes me feel more awake and alive.”

“The fact is, teachers aren’t just teachers, they’re human beings,” says Aryne Sheppard, senior public engagement specialist at the David Suzuki Foundation. “And research has shown time and again that nature makes humans happier, less irritable, and more creative and generous. Teaching is stressful work, and nature provides a powerful stress buffer.”

Despite all the benefits for students and educators, moving classes outdoors can be daunting. Teachers cite a host of barriers, from parental concerns to lack of time, confidence and support from administration.

So how can a teacher ease in (or jump right in) to teaching outside?

Ridley suggests joining forces with fellow educators for support and advice. Mendoza also seeks out guidance from outdoor enthusiasts. Several online communities exist to help and inspire, like the popular weekly #EnviroEd Twitter chats.

Organizations all across the country, including the David Suzuki Foundation, offer workshops for educators interested in taking students outside. These often include sample activities, logistical tips and advice for getting parents and administration on-board. And many of the same organizations have published excellent educational resources for teaching outdoors. The Foundation’s own Connecting With Nature guides for kindergarten through Grade 8 are full of lesson plans, step-by-step instructions and ideas for engaging local communities.

So while the idea of moving science or math class outdoors might be unnerving at first, the end result is more than worth it, for the well-being of everyone involved.

“If teachers are happy and connected to nature, they can pass that on to their students,” Sheppard says. “They can be the role models parents want for their children – role models the world needs.”

After all, those who learn to appreciate and love nature are more likely to protect it.

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