Outside Classrooms: Even Small Doses Can Help Counter Nature-Deficit Disorder

Miles of blue sky and green trees? Not necessarily. Studies show it doesn’t take much nature to combat nature-deficit disorder in students. A small patch of grass might be all that’s needed to experience the restorative power of “Vitamin N.”

Granted, nature-deficit disorder is not an official medical condition. But the phrase does capture what some K–12 educators consider a downfall of learning in digitally dominant indoor classrooms. Over time, a student’s narrow focus on a screen can block out other senses.

The good news: Most teachers can widen the sphere of rigorous learning from the confines of their classrooms to the school grounds – and beyond. Keep reading for examples, ranging from easy to extravagant.

Small Doses, Big Impact

Quality over quantity appears true when it comes to soaking up the benefits of a nature-based classroom. One recent study showed that third-grade students didn’t need to spend the day wandering a forested path (impractical for many schools) to get more engaged. The teachers simply changed the location of their lesson to a greener outside space, said lead researcher Ming Kuo of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

“We could have taken these kids into capital-n ‘Nature;’ but the kind that we studied turns out to be pretty common [a patch of grass] … and available for many schools,” Kuo said. “Kids are so starved for nature, that even a small dose helps them function remarkably better.” Studies like these may also explain why biophilic interior design has taken root.

The Benefits of Outside Classroom Activities

There’s a lot of science connecting overall student well-being and exposure to nature; it’s good on multiple levels (assuming schools have access to safe, comfortable outside spaces). Here are some obvious plusses compiled from no shortage of online sources:

Health – Research suggests that regular contact with nature, even in a small schoolyard or garden, can improve students’ physical fitness, mental health, academic achievement and cognitive, social-emotional and motor functions.

Learning – Studies dating back to the mid-1990s demonstrated a strong link between natural daylight and higher test scores. More recently, studies show a beneficial association between exposure to green space and cognitive development.

Focus – Outdoor learning is a multi-sensory experience that helps engage students and relieve symptoms of attention-deficit disorder. There are important carry-over effects, too. Ming Kuo’s study with third-graders found that, in some cases, teachers had to redirect students half as often, following an outdoor lesson.

Interest/Curiosity – Teaching outdoors increases students’ interest in a subject and intrinsic motivation to learn. It may also help them retain information longer than regular indoor classes.

Fun – Outdoor learning affects student happiness. Kids report liking their school more when lessons are held outdoors. They’re learning, but they’re also experiencing nature just for the joy of it.

Safety – During a pandemic, outdoor classrooms offer more airflow and space to create more physical distance between students. It also teaches students that learning has no boundaries. It can happen anywhere.

Sustainability – Being in the environment helps teach students how to be good environmental stewards. They can learn first-hand about everything from climate change to composting.

Sense of Place/Civic Pride – Developing a more personal relationship with nature connects students more meaningfully to their community. And, they bring that enthusiasm home to their families.



Outdoor Learning Examples

Richard Louv is co-founder of the Children & Nature Network. He’s credited with creating the term “nature-deficit disorder” and is the author of “Vitamin N: The Essential Guide to a Nature-Rich Life.” Louv says any green space will provide some benefit to mental and physical well-being. He also believes that after years of schools moving toward more hours in the classroom, a counter trend is growing to bring student learning outside.

Here are some examples, from simple to more sophisticated, of how schools can develop outdoor learning lessons:

In Urban Areas

Consider a nearby park, a quiet corner with a tree, several pots with vegetables growing outside or even a peaceful place with a view of the sky, clouds, a bird feeder or birdbath. Schools can also develop partnerships with the local forest service, a parks & rec department, community garden leaders and neighborhood organizations.

Outdoor Labs

Outdoor labs can expand the instructional space and keep students engaged by allowing them more room to move about, especially when the weather cooperates. Labs can take the form of community teaching gardens, outdoor makerspaces and open-air seating areas. Weatherproof whiteboards and mobile supply carts further enable teachers to move their lessons outside or even center lessons around local environmental topics.

Outdoor Classrooms

Some elementary schools create designated outdoor classrooms for immersive, hands-on learning. Different stations teach different subjects, scaled in difficulty to the grade group. For example, natural objects can help students learn math and create artwork. Gardening can convey science concepts. Weather can open students to new ways of interpreting literature.

Designed Spaces

Suburban schools with large campuses will certainly have more options to expand gardens, study native plant species and incorporate natural play areas. Some districts go a step further to build nature into their campus or factor it into building design.

In Whitestown, Ind., landscape architects designed a wet retention basin — a pond that collects stormwater — as an outdoor laboratory for Zionsville West Middle School, a public school. A one-acre pond has shallow-depth areas for wetland plant species and a boardwalk with observation decks. There’s also wireless access for small group instruction, science classes and project-based learning.

Rancho Campana High School in Camarillo, Calif., has classrooms grouped around common greens, with entire walls that open up to them, allowing for learning that spills out into nature.

Yes, Serious Work Can Happen Outdoors

Some teachers remain reluctant to take learning outside. They worry students will lose focus. But as researcher Ming Kuo said, “You can add as much instructional time as you want and keep pouring, but once that cup is full, it’s full. You have to find ways to give kids more capacity to take [information] in.” Being in nature seems to increase that capacity.

Other schools and educators assume all of the “serious” work needs to happen inside a building. Not so, says former teacher and nature advocate Kate Ehrenfield Gardoqui in her article, “The Irrefutable Case for Taking Class Outside.” Schools aren’t neglecting rigor when incorporating nature into learning.

“When we walked through the dim school hallway and out the door, there was a feeling of lightness that would sweep through the class as blue sky unfurled above us. There was joy as we walked out onto the grass — and that joy was a form of equity [for all students].”

Click here to walk through an Outdoor Learning Space.