Research Summary

Teacher and student perceptions of an outdoor classroom

Students with and without special needs and their teachers share positive perceptions of learning in an outdoor classroom

Journal of Outdoor and Environmental Education

The aim of this study was to gain a better understanding of the impact of learning outdoors for children with and without disabilities. While previous research clearly indicates that nature contact and outdoor exposure positively impact children and adults, little is known about teachers’ and children’s attitudes about using outdoor spaces for teaching and learning. This is especially true for children with disabilities.

Two kindergarten teachers and 37 kindergarten students participated in this study. Both classes served children with and without special needs. Data collection for this study started soon after an outdoor classroom was installed at the participating school. The outdoor classroom included student learning materials (notebooks, books, and writing utensils), teaching tools (chalkboard, chalk, file for materials), carpet squares for seating, a storage shed, several canopies for shade, and landscaping materials (mulch, tree stumps, and large potted plants). Researchers collected observational data during writing lessons in both the outdoor and indoor learning environments over a period of six-weeks. They also collected observational data during recess or free time during this same time period. At the end of the six-week observational period, the two kindergarten teachers completed an online survey addressing their perceptions of the outdoor classroom compared to the indoor classroom. Also, after the six-week observational period, 13 of the 37 kindergarten children were randomly selected to participate in a one-on-one interview addressing their perceptions of the outdoor classroom compared to the indoor classroom.

Data from the observational notes, the teacher surveys and the child interviews indicated that both teachers and students perceived the outdoor classroom to be a positive environment for learning. In contrasting the indoor and outdoor environments, teachers and students indicated that the benefits of the outdoor classroom included increased well-being, pleasure, and interest in the learning activities.  There were also some indications that children with special needs were less distracted and more on-task in the outdoor versus indoor classroom.

This research calls attention to the benefits for teachers and students of time outdoors during the school day and suggests that students with special needs may especially benefit from learning in outdoor classrooms.