Studies on the physical activity of young people show less than a quarter of children aged 5–14 achieve the recommended 60 minutes of physical activity every day and spend just over two hours each day sitting or lying down for screen-based activities.
In response to this, a number of schools across Australia are introducing nature play environments in an effort to better connect primary students with the outdoors.
Fortunately, purpose-built nature play spaces are becoming a common feature in schools across Australia, with a recent study finding 63% of public primary schools in South Australia alone have one, and a further 25% are either planning or already building one.
A growing body of research shows that while outdoor play has obvious benefits for students physical health, it can also improve their academic outcomes.
For this reason, and many others, Professor Tonia Gray, Senior Researcher in the Centre for Educational Research at Western Sydney University, predicts a trend towards nature-based solutions, “inspired and supported by nature”.
With a Masters in Community Health and a PhD in Education, Professor Gray’s transdisciplinary research explores outdoor experiential education, human-nature relationships, gender and health /wellbeing. She was the inaugural chair (2018-2022) of the Australian Tertiary Outdoor Educators Network and a recipient of the international Association of Experiential Education Distinguished Researcher of the Year (2019).
“Outdoor Learning – also known as Outdoor Education – is learning about, with, and through the natural world. The upward trend towards nature-based solutions and outdoor learning in our schools is gaining momentum in 2023,” Professor Gray told The Educator.
“This has been witnessed in the recent changes to our Australian Curriculum. Outdoor learning programs have also become more common, with teachers using natural environments to implement a wide range of subjects. Undoubtedly, this a positive step towards promoting student health and wellbeing.”
Drawing from her own research, Professor Gray said contact with nature can enhance a child’s creativity, improve cognitive functioning, psycho-social wellbeing, cultivate risk-taking and self-reliance, exploration and experimentation, and promote physical fitness and active engagement (Gray, 2018; 2019).
“Students are encouraged to participate in activities such as hiking, camping, rock climbing, canoeing, and other outdoor activities,” she said.
“These challenging activities develop their physical capabilities, problem-solving skills, resiliency, and teamwork. Moreover, they also learn to appreciate nature and develop a sense of environmental stewardship [Quay et al, 2020].”
‘A wonderland of endless opportunities’
Professor Gray said the outdoors is “a wonderland of endless opportunities” for children to learn, experiment and explore.
“In short, nature plus learning is a ‘superfood’ for students [Gray, T. 2022]. Contact with nature has a myriad of developmental benefits [See Mann, Gray & Truong, 2022 & 2023].”
These benefits have been highlighted in studies Professor Gray conducted along with her colleagues Jeff Mann and Son Truong in 2022 and 2023 respectively.
Professor Gray said the latest empirical data reveals a variety of benefits including, physical, social, and mental health outcomes, including greater self-confidence, leadership abilities and risk-management skills.
“In addition, the educational benefits associated with incorporating nature-based solutions into the school curriculum is linked to improved academic scores, creativity, and resiliency skills among students [Mann, Gray et al 2022],” she said.
“As a result, schools are progressively recognising the importance of connecting students with nature and outdoor learning. Teachers are now actively embracing opportunities to learn outside of the traditional classroom setting.”
And yes, teachers as well, can enjoy the similar benefits as students, says Professor Gray.
“Every day, there is something new to appreciate outdoors. Time spent in Nature continues to awaken your senses and leaves you with unforgettable memories.”
Principals should ‘be bold, and go rogue’
Professor Gray said when she trained as a teacher in the 1980s there was no such thing as an Outdoor Education course. However, she was acutely aware as a PE/Health teacher that students learn best from experience, also known as ‘experiential education’.
“Professionally, I learnt by osmosis, reading the educational trends across the world and by taking risks myself [and of course, making mistakes],” she said.
“In Australia, some principals have been fierce advocates for incorporating gardens, compost bins and green infrastructure (such as rain tanks and solar panels) as part of their sustainability efforts in their schools.”
Correspondingly, says Professor Gray, opportunities for students to be outside, and at times, engage in risky activities, has eroded over time due to litigation concerns.
“In part, this has been limited by teachers’ fears about taking children outdoors and risk. Many have the perception that classroom management is harder outdoors. Nothing could be further from the truth,” she said.
“My advice: start small, take baby steps and you will see the benefits unfold.”
Professor Gray said students will come back into the classroom after outdoor activity, being much calmer and intellectually reenergised.
“Finally, I encourage our principals to be bold, ‘go rogue’ [Gray & Bailey, 2022] and embrace Outdoor education a powerful pedagogical approach.”
Gray, T. (2018). Outdoor learning: not new, just newly important. Curriculum Perspectives 38:145–149 https://doi.org/10.1007/s41297-018-0054-x
Gray, T. (2019). Outdoor Learning and Psychological Resilience: Making today’s students better prepared for tomorrow’s world. Curriculum Perspectives. 39(1), 69-72. DOI: 10.1007/s41297-019-00069-1.
Gray T., & Bailey P. (2022) Gone Rogue: Re-wilding Education in Alternative Outdoor Learning Environments. In: Cutting R., Passy R. (eds) Contemporary Approaches to Outdoor Learning. Palgrave Studies in Alternative Education. (pp. 215-233). Palgrave Macmillan, Cham.
Mann, J., Gray, T., & Truong, S. (2022). Outdoor-Based Learning: How Can it Contribute to High Quality Learning? In Jucker, R. & Von au, J. (Eds) High Quality Education. Evidence-based Education Outside the Classroom for Children, Teachers and Society. Springer Nature.
Gray, T., (2022). Play + Nature + Stir = Superfood for Children. Invited keynote speaker: NSW Early Years Inaugural Conference. Randwick, NSW March 5.
Mann, J., Gray, T., & Truong, S. (2023). Does growth in the outdoors stay in the outdoors? The impact of an extended residential and outdoor learning experience on student motivation, engagement and 21st century capabilities. Frontiers in Psychology, 14. doi:10.3389/fpsyg.2023.1102610
Mann, J.; Gray, T.; Truong, S.; Passy, R.; Ho, S.; Ward, K.; Sahlberg, P.; Bentsen, P.; Curry, C.; & Cowper, R. A. (2022). Getting out of the classroom and into nature: A systematic review of nature-specific outdoor learning on school children’s learning and development. Frontiers in Public Health
Quay, J., Gray, T., Thomas, G. et al. (2020). What future/s for outdoor and environmental education in a world that has contended with COVID-19? Journal of Outdoor and Environmental Education