How Outdoor Learning Brings Students Together

In a year full of challenges, figuring out how to implement outdoor learning may feel like a tall task for teachers. It’s too hot in Arizona. Too muggy in Mississippi. Too snowy in Maine. And in cities everywhere, “too dangerous.” Kass Minor has heard many of those objections in recent months. It’s a similar response that comes with “anything that’s outside people’s experience,” she said, but like her husband, Minor took her students outside regularly when she taught in New York City public schools. She noted that New York City erected a pop-up hospital in Central Park in just a week this spring and said that with a shift in resources and mindset, similar innovations are possible in education.

This summer, Minor brought together experienced outdoor educators to create a virtual course that helps teachers envision and implement outdoor learning wherever they are. The goal, Minor said, is to support teachers in creating “doable” alternatives that “help everyone experience the things that we’re deeply missing about teaching and learning right now, which are those joyful experiences and kids being curious about the world.” That requires rethinking what outdoor learning is and who it’s for. Outdoor learning can happen across subjects, and it doesn’t require access to lush gardens or forests. When Cornelius Minor’s students encountered the dying bird, they were on an urban walk to experience how long it took to burn off one gram of sugar. The exercise was part of a short-term health class that Minor was asked to teach, but most of his outdoor teaching was part of language arts.

“Writing very much has its root in a place,” Minor said, “So when kids show up and say, ‘I don’t have anything to write,’ it means that you haven’t been outside and really opened your eyes.” He started each year by taking students outside to turn their senses on as writers. The brownstone they passed everyday, the housing project down the block, the corner where they bought popcorn after school — all of those places contain stories, Minor said. “And so really helping kids to mine important places for important stories is an essential component.”

In his decade of teaching, Minor said he only suspended one student and often saw attendance rates above 95 percent. He attributed those successes to the engagement that comes with getting beyond the classroom walls. “I always feel like a kid is going to come to school if they know that their writing teacher is going to be showing them something weird outside so that they can write about it.” Minor acknowledged that he could not officially prove the connection, but research lends support to his observations. A 2019 research review published in Frontiers in Psychology found that “nature-based instruction outperforms traditional instruction” for academic outcomes such as standardized test scores and graduation rates. Those benefits may derive from improvements to “attention, levels of stress, self-discipline, interest and enjoyment in learning, and physical activity and fitness,” the authors wrote.

For Cinnamon Kills First, a Northern Cheyenne artist and educator, academic research on the benefits of outdoor learning simply confirms what her ancestors have long known. In a session for the virtual course that Kass Minor developed, Kills First described how indigenous traditions hold the earth as a family member to be treated with reciprocity. She encouraged teachers to learn from that wisdom. When European settlers colonized the United States, they “intentionally disconnected people from their natural learning environments” through forced removals and assimilationist practices, such as boarding schools that forbade Native culture, Kills First said in an interview with MindShift.

“I believe a majority of the social or global issues we face have to do with how humans have mistreated the land. All those decisions are coming back to harm us and our health,” she said. By helping children relate differently to the land and each other, Kills First said teachers can play a role in reversing the damage.

Allison Green
Boston Tutoring Services

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