We go to great lengths to surround ourselves in nature without even realizing it. We fill our indoor spaces with house plants, choose nature inspired backgrounds on our computer screen, even the art we choose to adorn the bare spaces in our homes typically reflect green or natural spaces. White noise and sound machines mimic the sounds we would hear in nature. It’s not an accident that those things are what we turn to when we’re stressed, need some time out, or need help sleeping. It’s because we turn to the natural world to restore balance and a sense of wellbeing.
Being outside in nature is an ideal environment for human development. But with the wide variety of technological distractions and structured activities, many things compete with opportunities for outdoor play. Also, many adults are aware more than ever of the everyday risks that being outside can pose for children. Concerns arise about everything from an embedded tick, to a bee sting, to accidental injuries. In many cases, that understandably worried behavior results in limiting developmental growth opportunities children can have outdoors. Instead of allowing free time to play and explore outside, children encounter fences, have access to cell phones at younger and younger ages, and are committed to a host of scheduled activities. However, research shows if we don’t offer children the chance to explore and discover in unstructured, yet supported ways, they may not fully develop the skills they need to cope with the world on their own.
Studies have demonstrated that when people have access to both unstructured and structured outdoor play they exhibit increased social skills, confidence, self-esteem, creative thinking, and decision-making skills -- they tend to develop into effective and active contributors to local and global communities. Outdoor education means students get out of the classroom, are physically active, interact with their surroundings, and learn through experience.
We don’t need studies to tell us that when we go for a walk in the park we feel less stressed, have more perspective, and we’re ready for the next task. Regardless, research abounds with reasons for incorporating more time outside. In schools where outdoor learning is central to the curriculum, students exhibit a decrease in behavioral issues, a positive increase in standardized testing, as well as an enhanced attitude about school.
Awareness of outdoor education benefits is increasing as teachers seek to offer differentiated instruction. While an appreciation of the outdoors has always had a place at Bement, the school made a commitment to expand the outdoor education program in 2017, with the purchase of Pine Hill and an investment in programming there. This means students have access to a largely un-manicured and natural space where they can, for example, explore freshwater ecology at the vernal pool, participate in Harvard Forest studies to investigate phonological changes in trees, and investigate relationships between natural systems and human systems. Imbedded in all of the time spent at Pine Hill is a chance for students to reflect upon their experiences, and to play and explore at will. Teachers who have committed to bringing their classes to Pine Hill on a regular basis, report a noticeable pattern: on Pine Hill days, students return to their classrooms more focused, more energized, and more willing to participate in classroom activities. Bement’s ongoing commitment to spending time outdoors and learning about the world around us nurtures each student intellectually, creatively, physically, and emotionally.
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Becker, C., Lauterbach, G., Spengler, S., Dettweiler, U., Mess, F., (2017). Effects of regular classes in outdoor education settings: A systematic review on students' learning, social and health dimensions. International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health, 14
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