A large metastudy of hundreds of scientific studies has found what most parents and teachers already know — nature has a powerfully positive impact on children’s learning and on their emotional health.
“Report after report – from independent observers as well as participants themselves – indicate shifts in perseverance, problem solving, critical thinking, leadership, teamwork, and resilience,” the authors wrote. “The evidence here is particularly strong, including experimental evidence; evidence across a wide range of samples and instructional approaches; outcomes such as standardized test scores and graduation rates; and evidence for specific explanatory mechanisms and active ingredients.”
The meta-analysis (a study that combined the results of many other studies) was published last month in the journal Frontiers in Psychology. After combining all of the findings, the researchers found that nature helps children learn in eight different ways.
The eight key ways that nature helps children learn were:
Nature Rejuvenates Kids and Helps Them Focus
Studies showed that whether it was students going on field trips, Swedish preschoolers, children in Chicago public housing, or 5 to 18-year-olds with ADHD, nature had a rejuvenating effect on attention. These findings were confirmed not just by parent and teacher ratings, but by neurocognitive tests.
Nature Relieves Stress
The studies showed that even seeing nature out the classroom window had a positive effect on kids, lowering their heart rates and leading to kids who reported lower stress levels. Better yet were the kids who were able to learn in a forest setting once a week. Those kids had lower cortisol (stress hormone) levels even beyond what could be attributed to the physical activity of being outdoors.
Contact With Nature Boosts Self-Discipline
Studies from Spain to inner city Chicago showed that kids who spent time in nature had better impulse control, including kids with ADHD and learning disabilities. Contact with animals such as horses was found to also have a positive effect.
Student Motivation, Enjoyment, and Engagement Are Better in Natural Settings
Many of the studies found that students and teachers reported strikingly high levels of student engagement and motivation, not just in nature activities that kids had chosen to take part in but also in mandatory school activities in nature. The researchers noted that learning in and around nature was associated with intrinsic motivation and not just extrinsic motivation (meaning kids were motivated to do things themselves and not doing them because they were forced to), which is important in keeping kids engaged and interested in learning.
“The positivity of learning in nature seem to ripple outward, as seen in learners’ engagement in subsequent, indoor lessons, ratings of course curriculum, materials, and resources and interest in school in general, as well as lower levels of chronic absenteeism,” the authors wrote.
The researchers also found that “learning in nature may improve motivation most in those students who are least motivated in traditional classrooms.”
Time Outdoors Is Tied to Higher Levels of Physical Activity and Fitness
Children’s time outdoors was linked to cardiorespiratory fitness, the type of fitness most clearly associated with better academic performances. Studies also showed that kids who had access to nature stayed more active, even into adulthood.
Natural Settings Provide Calmer, Quieter, Safer Contexts for Learning
The researchers found that both formal and informal learning improved in nature. When they were learning in a natural setting, kids were less likely to engage in disruptive behaviors like pushing each other or talking out of turn. “Further, in greener learning environments, students who previously experienced difficulties in traditional classrooms are better able to remove themselves from conflicts and demonstrate better self-control,” the authors noted.
Natural Settings Foster Friendlier, More Cooperative Relations
Many of the studies showed that natural settings helped kids make friends and feel more trusting. The researchers theorized that the kids were able to engage more with each other, and that they had a better spirit of cooperation not just with each other but with their teachers. In addition, they reported that “learning in greener settings has been consistently tied to the bridging of both socio-cultural differences and interpersonal barriers (e.g., personality conflicts) that can interfere with group functioning in the classroom.”
Natural Settings Encourages “Loose Parts” Play, Independence and Healthier Forms of Play
The benefits of “loose parts” play (play involving small objects that kids can use to play and create in open-ended ways) are extended into nature, where kids have access to sticks, rocks, water, dirt and other natural materials. Studies have shown that teachers and principals found that kids who engaged in loose parts play in nature had more physically active, social and creative play, which were likely to lead to improvements in social, emotional and academic development.
Some of the most interesting studies included:
- One study of over 3,000 students found that kids who took part in a classroom garden learned more than those on the wait list. The more garden time they had, the more they learned.
- Several studies showed that having nature around schools led to better standardized test scores, even in schools with high poverty levels.
- Many studies showed that time in “wilderness” led to kids developing better leadership skills, resilience, self-confidence, cooperation, perseverance, critical thinking and more.
- Greener everyday environments seemed to buffer kids from stress and give them better coping skills.
The authors noted that even small doses of nature helped kids, like being able to see nature out their classroom windows. Obviously, the more time they spent in nature, the better, though. They wrote:
“Even small exposures to nature are beneficial. If you’re indoors, having a view of your yard as opposed to facing the wall, that makes a difference. At the same time, more is better. That’s one of the things that gives us more confidence that we’re seeing a real cause-and-effect relationship,” Kuo says. “The bigger the dose of nature we give a person, the bigger the effect we see in them.”
Looking for some inspiration to get your kids outside? I’ve been publishing a free nature-based monthly magazine for kids and their grown ups this year — Wild Kids Magazine. You and your kiddos can read it online or print it out. It’s a nonprofit project (just as this blog always has been), just to try to do my little bit to spread good stuff in the world.
Want to help convince your school to incorporate more nature in its learning? These organizations may be able to help.
Natural Start Alliance works to connect parents, teachers, day care providers and others who teach kids “with the tools they need to create great educational experiences that help young children explore the natural world, understand their environment, and build lifelong skills that will help keep them active and engaged in their communities.”
The Children & Nature Network encourages and supports the people and organizations working to reconnect every child in every community with nature. The network provides a critical link between researchers, individuals, educators and organizations dedicated to children’s health and well-being. C&NN also provides resources for sharing information, strategic initiatives and success stories.
I’ve also created a list of my favorite nature-based books for families (and those I can’t wait to read) on Goodreads, from The Wild Weather Book to How to Grow a School Garden. Please add your favorites!
“Must we always teach our children with books? Let them look at the stars and the mountains above. Let them look at the waters and the trees and flowers on Earth. Then they will begin to think, and to think is the beginning of a real education.”
Here’s to more nature goodness for all of us.