This pandemic has disrupted the education of at least 1.5 billion school students. That’s more than 90 percent of the world’s children. Although many schools in the west, along with private schools in the developing world, have continued some school activities online, more than 50 percent of learners worldwide do not have a household computer. The absence of face-to-face learning and opportunities for playing with friends will seriously affect the mental health of these children.
Research has shown that an outdoor environment can improve children’s motivation and well-being, and can help improve the level of children’s physical activity and learning outcomes. Learning in nature has also been shown to reduce stress and boost mental well-being.
Outdoor learning was traditionally practiced in countries across the African and Asian continents, but is now valued less and less. In many cases, it is only seen as an option when there is no functioning classroom. But now, more than ever, the benefits of outdoor learning must be capitalized on all over the world.
I have researched outdoor learning environments for more than 10 years. While most research in this area is concentrated in western countries, my own has focused on Bangladesh.
In Bangladesh, the net enrollment rate at primary schools is nearly 100 percent, but only 32 percent of the children reach higher secondary level (typically completed at ages 16–18). There are many reasons for this high dropout rate, including poverty and child marriage.
But one reason that is rarely considered is the quality of the learning environment. Evidence shows many students drop out because they do not feel attracted to school and did not like the traditional teaching and learning environment.
Teaching and learning outdoors has been core to the education system in the Indian subcontinent and was practiced widely before the education system was formalized. It is still being practiced in the town of Shantiniketan, India, established by the Nobel Laureate poet and philanthropist Rabindranath Tagore. But the idea is not mainstream and the political, physical, and social infrastructure to support its wider implementation is absent.
I looked into whether learning in an outdoor environment can improve children’s academic attainment, motivation, and play in a Bangladeshi primary school as part of my doctorate. School grounds in Bangladesh are largely barren fields without any features. Clearly this needed to change if outdoor learning was to be encouraged. The school I worked with was a primary school 80 kilometers from the capital city Dhaka.
I wanted the children’s input for the redesign. I asked Grade 4 children (8- to 12-year-olds) what they would like to have in their playground for both learning and play. The children drew pictures and shared their thoughts. I brainstormed with teachers separately and asked what they would need in the outdoor learning environment in order to take curricular teaching and learning outdoors.
Then we all participated in a model-making workshop, led by the children. I supplied materials based on the drawings made by children and suggestions offered by teachers. We presented the model to the local community, who came forward to help us with whatever resources they could offer.
A New Classroom
The children wanted places to explore and experiment, to play and learn together, to challenge them physically and intellectually, to make things and be creative, to connect with nature, to be alone, and to reflect. Studies with children from different parts of the world have yielded similar results, showing these preferences are universal.
Teachers, meanwhile, told me that nature can offer opportunities to try out science. They wanted different types of vegetation and a garden in the schoolyard. They requested an area with different loose materials such as twigs, branches, seeds, and egg crates to help them demonstrate number theories and other mathematical problems. They also asked for some group learning settings for group activities and an outdoor classroom.
All of these preferences were then taken into account when Bangladeshi architect Fuad Abdul Quaium and I designed the school ground. We hired local masons and used low-cost materials and technology. The children designed a mural. The school ground was ready for use in January 2015. The teachers led children outdoors regularly for their maths and science lessons.
My research showed that the children’s attainment in maths and science improved after teaching and learning outdoors. The Grade 4 children performed significantly better in maths and science compared to a comparable school that had had no change in the environment.
Hands-on learning outdoors made learning fun and engaging for everyone, but particularly benefited underachievers. We found that children who didn’t interact much in the classroom setting were more proactive and participated more in their outdoor sessions.
An Outdoor Future
Outdoor classrooms can also provide the space to maintain social distancing while learning. But the school ground should be designed in a way to support teaching and learning, and teachers need training in the use of their school grounds and surroundings for teaching.
My research strengthens the already existing evidence on the benefits of outdoor learning. The study also generates new evidence for its use outside western countries, suggesting outdoor learning has the potential to improve the quality of education all over the world.
is a lecturer in urban design at Cardiff University in the UK. This article was first published on The Conversation.