Research Summary

Teaching traditional indoor school lessons in nature: The effects on student learning and behaviour

Students spent more time on-task in outdoor versus indoor classrooms

Landscape and Urban Planning

Ideas in support of outdoor learning include attention restoration theory (ART), person-environment interaction (PEI) theory, and theory of affordances. ART is based on the understanding that exposure to nature can restore one’s ability to concentrate. PEI theory relates to how a person may function in a given environment and addresses factors contributing to a supportive environment. “Affordances” refer to what an environment offers in terms of perception and possible actions. This study investigated the supportive effects of nature by comparing the effect that lessons in nature have on disadvantaged students’ behavior and learning compared to lessons in a standard indoor classroom.

This study was conducted in a socioeconomically disadvantaged city in Australia, with three classes of students (age 13-14) participating over a ten-week period. All three classes were taught in a standard indoor classroom for five weeks. After that, two of the classes were taught in an outdoor classroom for five weeks, while the third class was taught in the regular indoor classroom. The science curriculum used throughout the study was identical for all three classes. Teachers in the outdoor settings were instructed to not interact with the natural environment or change their teaching style, as the aim of the study was to measure differences in student behavior and learning due to passive exposure to nature versus interacting with nature. Researchers used two different measures for collecting data on student on-task/engagement behavior: (1) researcher observations of teacher redirect rates during science lessons and (2) teacher and researcher ratings of engagement-related behavior during the science lessons. A redirect refers to anytime the teacher redirects a student’s attention or the class back to the lesson. Teachers’ ratings focused on the engagement of the whole class, not individual students. The rating instrument asked teachers to note how student engagement in the outdoor setting compared overall with engagement in the indoor setting. Grades in “science understanding” were used as a measure of learning.

Redirect tallies collected by the researcher showed fewer redirects in the outdoor setting compared to the indoor setting. These results were maintained throughout the term. These results indicate that students spent more time on-task in outdoor classrooms, and that teachers in outdoor classrooms have more time for instructing students versus redirecting them. Other results showed that teachers rated the outdoor classroom engagement as being the same as indoor. There were no significant changes in student grades.

Overall results indicate that outdoor classrooms may promote less disengagement and misbehavior in class. These results are consistent with the theories of ART and PEI, and suggest that a natural outdoor setting may be a more supportive environment for students than an indoor setting. The fact that there were no significant grade improvements for students in the outdoor learning groups might be explained, in part, by the theory of affordances. If teachers in the outdoor settings were encouraged to use the affordances of the natural environment to promote student learning, academic outcomes might have been different. The researchers note, however, that while grades did not improve, the positive changes in student engagement should not be dismissed . . . the finding of less redirects, although not statistically significant, may be significant for individual young people of this [disadvantaged] background.”