Driving behind a school bus one recent winter afternoon, I watched a boy of about 10 get off the bus and cross the street to go home. What stood out to me about this commonplace afterschool scenario, however, was that the boy was glued to his smartphone the entire time — so much so that he wandered off his driveway and walked about fifteen feet into his snowy yard, looking up only when he realized he was up to his knees in snow. He righted his path and got back onto his driveway and continued walking towards his house, head bent again towards whatever entertaining world the phone was providing.

School trends

That particular moment exemplifies the trends that American schools have been experiencing in recent years: children are spending an average of over 40 hours per week on screens, not including the time they spend on computers when they’re at school. Schools are also noticing decreasing attention spans (humans now have shorter attention spans than goldfish), a notable increase in a range of mental and physical health problems, and parents with an increased sense of fear for the safety of their children. Meanwhile, school teachers are struggling with increased demands on having their students meet a variety of learning standards and are often trying to gain more classroom time by minimizing recess-time.

These troubling trends occurring in American schools today can seem overwhelming, so coming up with one solution can seem unlikely at best. However, employing the principles of outdoor education in every American school has the potential to address all of these concerning trends.

Outdoor education 101

Picture this: There are two equal groups of middle schoolers standing in horizontal lines facing each other. One side represents a group of deer and the other side represents the resources those deer need to live, which the students determined are food, water, and shelter. When the teacher yells “Oh Deer!” the deer run towards the resources, each deer partnering up with the type of resource it needs. If a deer cannot find a resource to pair with, the deer dies dramatically in the field, decomposes, then becomes a resource. If a deer does find a matching resource, the student playing the resource joins the group of deer — this represents an increase in the deer population due to access to resources. Before playing another round, the teacher carefully leads the students through graphing the change in deer population (as you might imagine, there are more deer after round one) and hypothesizing what will happen in the next round. Through this outdoor activity, the students are not only exercising and having fun but also covering a range of math and science education standards all at once.

When embedded in a curriculum that includes regular outdoor, hands-on experiences focused on using the natural world as a lens to solve problems, come up with new ideas, and develop questioning skills, an activity like “Oh Deer” perfectly exemplifies the interdisciplinary impact of outdoor education.

The benefits of outdoor education

In a 6th-grade outdoor geology class I used to teach, I brought my students to an area full of big rocks and told them to explore — by climbing, tunneling, and crawling—in an effort to answer one question: how did these rocks get here? Students naturally tested their limits on the slippery rocks, helping one another through tight squeezes and pulling each other to high places. They not only developed grit and self-esteem by challenging themselves, but also communicated with each other face-to-face and hand-to-hand, developing direct interpersonal skills. Considering such a broad question during their explorations also encouraged critical thinking and problem-solving in a real-world setting, which is correlated with higher test scores, academic achievement, and memory retention.

In younger children, regular outdoor learning experiences help them develop fine motor skills, enhance creativity, and develop the capacity for empathy — critical skills acquired during early childhood and correlated with becoming responsible adults. Outdoor education takes a slightly less structured approach for these younger children, free play being especially important for brain development, but playing with sticks, making fairy houses, matching natural objects to colorful paint chips, and making leaf rubbings all enhance their imaginations and engagement in the world around them.

In the words of Senegalese forester Baba Diuom, “In the end we will conserve only what we love. We will love only what we understand. We will understand only what we are taught.” And as naturalist John Burroughs put it “Knowledge without love will not stick. But if love comes first, knowledge is sure to follow.”

And regardless of if you’re a teacher or a parent, we could all do to spend more time outside: just a few 10-minute experiences in nature per week have proven mental-restoration benefits.

Outdoor education around the World

Did you ever consider the meaning of the word “Kindergarten?” In German, it translates to “children’s garden.” The first Kindergartens started in Europe in the mid-18th century were designed to encourage play and learning, primarily in an outdoor setting. Humans all over the world have recognized the learning value of outdoor experiences for a long time; let’s explore a few examples of the successes of outdoor education around the world today.

At Maruntabo, a forest kindergarten in Japan, young children use knives to prepare group meals, they climb and crawl in a variety of natural habitats, and they guide their own learning through exploration and curiosity. These programs have been catching on in Japan, and among many other benefits, are seeing way fewer children absent due to sickness than in indoor school settings.

In Finland, children in one forest school unknowingly learn their numbers by counting how many of them hop into a hole in the ground. They explore on their own, helping guide the curriculum themselves, developing their cognitive functioning, staying healthy, and never getting bored. Finland has some of the healthiest children in Europe and their government recommends children engage in a minimum of 3 hours of physical activity per day to keep them healthy and focused on learning.

In the UK and Norway, there are many forest schools where children brave the cold year-round outdoors, making fires, climbing trees, and assessing risk on their own.

Let’s get started

Improving mental and physical health, enhancing academic achievement and performance, and fostering community engagement is as simple as getting outdoors for hands-on learning experiences regularly throughout our lives. Schools, struggling with budget cuts, can also easily save money by becoming outdoor-based as the greatest teaching supplies can be found for free in nature. The trend towards keeping children indoors, immobile, and screen-reliant is harmful and expensive. But slowing this trend is simple: have students do their writing assignments outdoors where they can write about the change of seasons, have them make art with natural objects in their schoolyard, have them create shelters with sticks to test their engineering skills, or simply give them free time to explore, observe, and ask questions about the natural world on their own. In fact, try it out yourself. You’ll be glad you did.

Remember that boy who wandered into his snowy yard, glued to his phone? In that same area, a small group of boys just a little older than him were asked to brainstorm what their community would be like at its best. They created an elaborate mind-map with categories as broad as “food security” and “healthy rivers” and as specific as wanting a community gathering place. None of them mentioned smart technology, TVs, or computers. When their teacher pointed that out to them, they still weren’t interested in adding any of that to their list.

Perhaps we all have had enough screen time. Now is the time for schools to provide the alternative: the fun, mystery, and magic of life and learning in the great outdoors.