KIDS
January 25, 2018

Taking It to the Trees

You might think kids' attention suffers when teachers take classes outside. Not so.

Teachers, take your class outside. Your students will love you for it. And they'll probably pay a lot more attention to what you're saying afterwards.

A nature break helps break up the monotony of the classroom. And time spent in nature is good for the body, mind and soul.

Most teachers understand that their students would love to spend some class time outdoors. Yet they worry that taking kids outside will make it hard for them to concentrate once they get back in the classroom. The result is that skeptical teachers tend to keep the kids inside.

After an outdoor lesson, children stayed focused on their schoolwork roughly twice as long as children who had had the same lesson indoors.

“We wanted to see if we could put the nature effect to work in a school setting,” said Ming Kuo, lead author of a study testing what happens after you give schoolchildren a nature break. “If you took a bunch of squirmy third-graders outdoors for lessons, would they show a benefit of having a lesson in nature, or would they just be bouncing off the walls afterward?”

The University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign researchers found there was little to worry about. In fact, after an outdoor lesson, children stayed focused on their schoolwork roughly twice as long as children who had had the same lesson indoors.

“Our teachers were able to teach uninterrupted for almost twice as long at a time after the outdoor lesson,” says Kuo, “and we saw the nature effect with our skeptical teacher as well.”

The study looked at two classes of third-graders in the Midwestern United States. Over 10 weeks, two experienced teachers, one considerably more skeptical of the benefits of outdoor lessons than the other, each taught their class two similar lessons on the same topic each week, one outdoors on the grassy patch and the other inside the classroom as usual.

There is usually some green space to be found even in the most urban of areas. In this study, teachers used a grassy patch that was about five minutes walk away from the school. The five-minute walk probably didn't hurt, either. Just think back to how hard it was for you to sit through a full day's worth of grade school in your younger days.

After the lesson, researchers measured how often teachers needed to redirect children's attention back to their schoolwork, using phrases such as “sit down” or “you need to be working.”

An outdoor lesson cut the number of times the teacher had to do this roughly in half.

And when independent observers looked at 10 photos taken of each classroom, they also rated the children as appearing more engaged after being outdoors.

Just looking at greenery through the window can improve concentration. But actually being immersed in greenery is much, much better.

There's been a lot of evidence that children today aren't spending enough time outside. Well here's one way to address that concern. And if it also helps children pay more attention to their lessons, so much the better.

The study appears in Frontiers in Psychology.
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