Get Out! The Benefits of Outdoor Learning

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star-sponsored-native The following is sponsored by Southern Utah University.

Quick glances at the clock, tired yawns and glazed expressions, the professor writes a definition on the board as the stuffy classroom lulls students into a boredom-induced coma – this scene is familiar to most adults as they remember their past schooling and is a reality for a lot of America’s youth today.

In his book ‘Last Child in the Woods’, author Richard Louv coined the phrase “nature-deficit disorder” to describe how too much indoor overstimulation affects children in harmful ways, increasing levels of attention-deficit disorder, anxiety, depression and obesity. “As young people spend less of their lives in natural surroundings, their senses narrow, physiologically and psychologically, and we deny them access to a fundamental part of their humanity,” said Louv.

Hearing about something is vastly different than experiencing it firsthand. Classroom learning is effective to a point, and that point is where teachers need to take students out of the confines of brick walls and into the world, showing them real-life examples of the concept they’ve only read about.

suu-outdoor-learning-2Kelly Goonan, Outdoor Recreation in Parks and Tourism Program director at Southern Utah University, has noticed a difference in her students’ attitude and participation when she teaches outside. “They are less distracted by technology and more focused on the task at hand when we leave the typical classroom setting,” said Goonan. “Not only does nature provide an ideal setting for hands-on skill development and an ability to ‘see’ concepts discussed in class in a real-world setting, but the cognitive benefits of simply being outdoors help students learn better.”

Experiential learning is where education is headed, but more than demonstrating principles through interactive lessons is simply moving your students outside for a discussion or activity. This small change of location can give them the cognitive boost needed to increase learning and engagement with the class. It may seem like a daunting task for subjects that rely on technology and note taking, but a little creativity and planning can bring huge benefits to the student learning process.

New technology is introduced to all levels of education each year, changing and morphing the way students learn and information is taught. Yet the more technologically-advanced society becomes, the more humanity needs nature.

Rachel and Stephen Kaplan, renowned psychologists who’ve studied attention restoration, found that being outside is good for your mind (Kaplan and Kaplan, 1989) Immersing yourself in nature helps rewire your brain to work at optimum capacity. Being close to greenery and the outdoors has shown to also lower levels of stress (Thompson et al., 2012).

Briget Eastep, director of the Outdoor Engagement Center at SUU, had two students learn this study-hack firsthand. In one of her outdoor classes, students build quinzees (small snow shelters). She offered extra credit to anyone who spent the night in the hollow hill of snow and two students took her up on the offer. With other classes to balance, these two students studied for a natural resources exam the next day inside the quinzee and performed better on that test than any other test they had taken in her class. The rest of the semester, these students took their studies outside and continued to see improved test results.

There are definitely health benefits to studying and learning outside, as stated in the USA Today College article titled, “Why you should be studying outside”. Improving physical health by decreasing stress levels and increasing concentration is just one motivator to get people outside. Let Mother Nature help you learn, study and teach.

SUU uses its unique location to create a strong academic atmosphere where students do not simply read names of plants and rock structures out of a book, but are given the chance to see these wonders up close. SUU’s professionally trained faculty offer students the ability to learn first-hand how water carves deep cuts in the land as they stand atop the Grand Canyon and see the marvel the Colorado River has left in its wake. They study sandstone arches while standing under the Delicate Arch of Arches National Park in order to fully understand the power of wind.

At SUU, Thunderbirds can study geology, biology, archeology, environmental psychology, and outdoor recreation. Everything students learn is augmented with hands-on experiential learning opportunities. Check out this link to learn more.

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