The goal of my project was to use the information gathered to determine the best way to bring more outdoor learning opportunities to public school students in my local district. I inventoried the following components of outdoor learning: spaces used, subjects and curriculum taught, activities that occur, teachers’ attitudes towards teaching outside, and the successes and challenges of established programmes.
I also studied the physical spaces around schools to determine what they can offer to cross-curricular, place-based outdoor education. The physical environment (both built and natural) plays a key role in shaping child development socially, emotionally, and cognitively. The availability of both natural spaces (i.e. wildlife habitat areas, gardens, woods, streams, meadows) and built areas (i.e. black tops, playgrounds, sports fields) have a great influence on getting students outdoors for learning.
While I gained some of the insights for my study through a survey I conducted with teachers from both the US and New Zealand, the depth in which busy teachers have time to respond was understandably limited. Since it was essential that I visited directly with teachers in New Zealand to see them at work with their students and in the spaces they use for outdoor learning, the majority of my study occurred through direct observations and face-to-face interviews with teachers and administrators.
Teachers from both countries agree that students’ engagement in lessons is much higher when they happen outside. Being outside gives the students real-world connections to concepts that otherwise seem abstract. Gardens, woodlands, meadows, and beaches often provided a space for outdoor learning opportunities in science, maths, and writing. Both groups of teachers felt that more professional development would help them to get their students outside more often and they wished to have more training surrounding related curriculum. Many US teachers would like additional training to help manage student behaviour in outdoor spaces. Teachers in New Zealand often took walking field trips while teachers from the US felt their students would benefit from having more suitable spaces nearby for outdoor explorations.
I had the opportunity to observe and be inspired by numerous outdoor lessons while I visited schools in New Zealand. The most startling thing I discovered was that on average teachers in the US go outside for academic lessons four times per year, while teachers in New Zealand go outdoors for lessons on average three times per week.
It became clear that the value the people of New Zealand have for being outdoors impacts on the school structure, which has a major effect on students’ exposure to the outdoors. In our district (and, from my understanding through discussions I’ve had with teachers from across the US) our students are only allocated 20–30 minutes of recess (and sometimes this is an activity that is led by an adult) each day.
I have been an advocate for increasing unstructured play time during the school day for years because of all of the cognitive, physical, social, and emotional benefits it provides for children. In the schools in New Zealand it seems to be a ‘no-brainer’ that children need this time outside among their peers, and the school schedules are created to accommodate it. Schools in New Zealand typically do not start until 9am while elementary (primary) schools in the US often start as early as 7.45am. Students who are dropped off early can often play on the school playground or playing fields, with minimal supervision, or have a special space where they are allowed to wait. This allows them to socialise and exercise before class even begins.
Every school I visited had morning tea, which included 10–20 minutes of outdoor playtime. There are no cafeterias in New Zealand schools, so lunch time consists of 10 minutes required eating time and 50 minutes of play. This time outside, which often occurs rain or shine, gives students the opportunity to develop and use their social-emotional and problem-solving skills in a real-world context. In the US, most public school students eat indoors in the cafeteria where they have to stay seated and talk quietly.
Much research has been done in the past decade that confirms that people in general are becoming increasingly disconnected from the land and nature. Helping students develop a sense of place in this world can help them feel connectivity with their natural environment. Many years ago I was struck by a quote from Baba Dioum, a Senegalese forestry engineer. He said, ”In the end we will conserve only what we love, we will love only what we understand, and we will understand only what we are taught.” The purpose of my project in New Zealand was to inspire more teachers and administrators to find the time within the academic day to get students outside for learning, so they can help students to love and value Earth.
Upon reflection on my time in New Zealand and by returning to the classroom in a country where children spend an average of seven hours a day facing a screen, I feel urgency to get teachers the support they need to get students outside for learning and help them connect with nature. I do feel there is hope, and it comes through the form of community partnerships.
The four entities I noted that support robust outdoor education programming in New Zealand schools were: administration that values outdoor education, partnerships with non-profit organisations (like Enviroschools, Garden to Table, and Surf Life Saving), family and community volunteer support, and the payment of a management unit and time set aside for teachers who take on specialised programmes.
In my district, aside from sports programmes, teachers are not paid stipends nor given time for planning and preparation of academic programmes that get students outside on a regular basis and supportive administration is not consistent from school to school. Because of this there is a great need in our community to help schools build partnerships with non-profits, community members, families, and local businesses.
When I returned to the US this past summer a few members of our school and community farm, known as PEAS (Partners for Education, Agriculture, and Sustainability) decided we could help build these partnerships that will get students outside on a more consistent basis. We launched this fall as an official non-profit organisation with the mission to connect communities to the natural world with a focus on school and community gardening and outdoor learning in order to inspire the preservation and conservation of our precious planet.
As PEAS moves forward with assisting schools in building community partnerships for outdoor learning, providing curriculum, and assistance with garden revitalisation, I will continue my research on the best ways to help schools develop support systems that will provide longevity for outdoor education programmes in the academic setting.
In the past two decades that I have been teaching it has become increasingly obvious that our nation as a whole does not find value in giving our children the time they need outdoors in general, much less during the school day when their brains need it the most. Although our nation has set mandates for how much unstructured play time children can have during the school day, we can do better at getting them outside more often.
Unfortunately, in the US, it becomes the responsibility of the teacher to design lessons that meet state/national academic standards while engaging the students in outdoor learning. The pressure put on teachers to move forward multiple district initiatives while working to improve scores on standardised tests often makes it challenging to get creative with planning new lessons, much less in a new environment that can change class dynamics and cause need for additional behaviour support. It is evident that teachers need time and support to make outdoor education during the school day a reality.