Research Summary

Nature contact at school: The impact of an outdoor classroom on children's well-being

Outdoor classrooms can be used for increasing nature contact and promoting student well-being

International Journal of Environmental Health Research

Research strongly supports the understanding that nature contact promotes child development and that the lack of nature contact can have negative health outcomes for children. This study investigated the impact of a school-based nature intervention on elementary children’s well-being. The study focused specifically on the effect of learning in an outdoor classroom on children’s behavior, attention and well-being compared to learning in an indoor classroom.

Two kindergarten classes participated in this study which was implemented over a period of six weeks during daily language arts lessons. For the duration of the study, the two kindergarten teachers taught a writing lesson daily in either the indoor or outdoor classroom. They rotated the location -- indoor or outdoor -- on a daily basis. Data were collected daily, with one research assistant collecting data in the indoor classroom and another research assistant collecting data in the outdoor classroom. Before working separately, the two research assistants worked together for 11 days collecting data on both classes. This was done to insure consistency in how they collected the data.

Data collection measures focused on three outcomes: child engagement, child focus and attention, and child happiness and well-being.  The child engagement measure was based on teacher re-directions of child behavior. Child focus and attention was determined by the number of students off task in a one-minute interval. Two measures of child happiness and well-being were used: A self-reported ‘Face Scale’ survey completed after each lesson and a teacher survey completed at the end of the study. The Face Survey consisted of one question – “How did you feel during the lesson today?” – and three response options: a smiley face, a straight face, and a sad face. The teacher survey also consisted of one question which focused on their perceptions of how much the children seemed to enjoy the language arts lesson in the outdoor classroom compared to the indoor classroom.

Results showed that the rate of teacher re-directions of child behavior was significantly lower in the outdoor setting than in the indoor classroom and that the redirects decreased over the period of six weeks. While not statistically significant, student off-task behavior also occurred at a lower rate in the outside setting than in the indoor classroom. Children’s responses to the Face Survey showed no significant differences in happiness or well-being between the indoor and outdoor settings, but teachers reported that the children’s enjoyment was “somewhat better in the outdoor classroom” compared to the indoor classroom.

This research suggests that teaching outdoors can be used for increasing nature contact and promoting student well-being. Use of outdoor classrooms can also be a practical way for schools to meet instructional demands while promoting the happiness and well-being of students.