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Tim Holmes: How outdoor learning benefits wellbeing 

Reading Time: 5 minutes

Dr Tim Holmes, TTS Talking Outdoor Spaces panelist, shares the importance of outdoor leaning and how this benefits wellbeing.

Last year, researchers from the universities of Oxford, Cambridge, Exeter, Kings College London, University College London and Pennsylvania State published the results of an 8-year study into the effectiveness of school based mindfulness training on the mental health of pupils. The results were far from encouraging and highlighted the challenges that many of us who have ever tried to adopt a regular and effective mediation regime at home are only too familiar with. It’s really difficult to become good enough at meditation to feel any significant effects, no matter how appealing 20 minutes a day of absolute peace might be! As Florence Williams puts it in her excellent book The Nature Fix, meditation “has a high threshold to enlightenment”.

So why am I beginning a post about outdoor learning in this way?

I recently participated in the TTS Outdoor Spaces Webinar where we talked about the use of outdoor environments to enhance children’s learning opportunities. If you missed it, you can see it here.


Why take learning outdoors?

As a neuroscientist, I am well aware of the indisputable benefits of outdoor, and in particular contextual, learning when it comes to the brain. I discussed these in the webinar, but know only too well how time pressured teachers are, and so here’s a quick summary:


  • The brain needs oxygen to function – the more work it does, the more oxygen it needs. So, the more oxygen the brain receives, the better it is for cognitive functions like attention and memory, which are, of course, key to successful learning. 
  • Outdoor learning increases the available oxygen simply by virtue of not requiring pupils to inhale the increasingly CO2 rich atmosphere which develops in any classroom throughout the duration of a lesson. 
  • Outdoor learning also typically involves more physical activity which again increases oxygen levels in the bloodstream. 
  • All of this means that air quality is important, and studies have shown that polluted urban environments as well as low oxygen level environments such as high-altitude schools, can have a negative impact on attention, memory and therefore learning.
  • Outdoor learning also increases exposure to natural light, and the associated increase in vitamin D levels in the body have been shown to improve attention and, say it with me, this results in enhanced learning outcomes! 

So, from a cognitive perspective, the case for outdoor learning is strong. Sure, there are plenty of distractions in the outside world, and, for the developing school-age brain, these can present quite a challenge, but from a neuroscientific perspective this just strengthens the case, because learning to focus attention on the presence of distractors is probably one of the most important skills a person can develop for life.


The effect of outdoor learning on wellbeing

One thing I talked about very little in the webinar was the effect of outdoor learning on wellbeing. To many of you this might seem obvious, but time outdoors has been shown to reduce blood pressure and levels of the stress hormone cortisol, with the associated effects of improved mood and lower anxiety levels. Now, are you thinking what I’m thinking? If outdoor learning typically involves increased physical activity, and exercise has long been shown to reduce anxiety and depression then surely it’s the exercise that’s important? Moreover, exercise has been shown to boost memory, decision making and spatial perception in the brain. So surely just getting kids to move around in a classroom might achieve the desired result. Well sure, it might boost mood for a while, and it will certainly wake kids up and improve cognitive performance, but it will also severely deplete the available oxygen in the room because it’s hard to increase inhalation of that lovely O without increasing exhalation of that not so desirable CO2, so sustaining these effects is a challenge. 


Sensory and cognitive development

As an interesting aside, research has also shown that the wellbeing improvements associated with being outdoors, and with natural environments, can be mimicked with just exposure to imagery of trees, rivers, natural landscapes, and the like. This suggests that the wellbeing lift doesn’t just occur because of physical activity, and that something else might be going on.

In fact, it’s two things! 

 You’ve probably heard the phrase “fight or flight” before. It’s used to describe something called the sympathetic nervous system, which is typically engaged in stressful situations, or when the body needs to be physically active. You might be less familiar with the phrase “rest and digest”, which is sometimes used to describe the parasympathetic nervous system, which relaxes the body after periods of stress or danger. The exact mechanisms of these two systems aren’t important right now, but the difference in the environments that can trigger them is. 

It won’t come as a surprise that modern, urban environments are more likely to trigger the sympathetic nervous system, whereas the parasympathetic nervous system is more likely to respond to natural environments. This is almost certainly the result of hundreds of thousands of years of evolution in those natural environments which means we feel less threatened or anxious in them, than in urban environments which the brain simply hasn’t had time to evolve a tolerance for. So, exposure to natural environments can compensate for modern living, with the inevitable improvement in wellbeing. 

It turns out, that nature is more than restorative though, it is also enabling. The familiarity of natural environments free up sensory and cognitive resources like attention, which can result in more brain resources being made available for learning new things and increased creativity. Throw in the effects of improved oxygen and light levels and the secret sauce that is outdoor learning really starts to make sense.

There’s one other aspect of outdoor learning that I should mention.


Improved sleep, improved wellbeing

When was the last time you went for a hike, or spent an afternoon working on your garden, and said the words “I’m going to sleep well tonight”? Exercise has long been associated with improved sleep, and so, a correlation between outdoor learning, with its increased physical activity, and improved sleep patterns are entirely to be expected. But sleep is especially important for the developing brain of school-age children because it is in sleep that the brain consolidates new learning. Countless studies have shown improvements in test-scores on newly learned topics after even a short sleep. 

Unsurprisingly, a good night’s sleep also correlates with improvements in mental health and energy levels. In other words, sleep and wellbeing go hand in hand. 

Which brings me back to that study that I mentioned at the start. 

We can probably all agree that mindfulness is a good thing, and that its role in the wellbeing of our school children is one that should be encouraged. But, if it requires discipline, patience and persistence, it is never going to be the easiest or most effective route to improving the wellbeing of a developing child. Outdoor learning, in addition to supporting educational goals, is an altogether faster, simpler and, in most cases, more enjoyable way to improve the wellbeing of your class.

Oh, and by the way, most of the cognitive benefits I’ve mentioned exist even when the outdoor activity isn’t being enjoyed, so my advice to any teacher is to give it a go, listen to the feedback from the kids and learn together. With a little planning and a lot of flexibility, it’s not just the children who will benefit, because all those wellbeing effects are there for the teachers too. The biggest risk is you might never want to go back into a stuffy classroom ever again!


Article written by Dr Tim Holmes

Dr Tim Holmes is an award-winning educator and has developed and implemented neuroscience programmes for a range of academic and commercial customers, including Disney and Google.

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