Here at the EDL Collective, we know that spending time outdoors is invaluable for health and wellbeing. And any teacher who takes students outdoors can tell you anecdotes about how well kids learn in natural settings, and a growing number of studies support this. But while many decision-makers give lip service to the value of outdoor learning experiences, kids are still spending almost all their school time indoors. How can we change this?

At the Nature Explore/Outdoor Classroom Project Leadership Institute in July 2013, we asked teachers a question. If they had to convince a skeptical decision-maker of the value of nature-based outdoor classrooms, what evidence-based outcomes would they most like to see?

We received around 140 propositions from outdoor education teachers and other leaders, letting us know what evidence they’d like to pull out of their back pockets to show decision-makers how outdoor classrooms positively impact children. After categorizing their responses and placing them in groups of specific outcomes, we noted five broad areas of interest. (Check out the graph.)

Outdoor classroom survey results

The overwhelming majority of teachers wanted to show evidence of positive learning outcomes. In other words, that kids with access to outdoor classrooms develop better spatial awareness, have a better attitude towards learning and new experiences, exhibit increased focus and attention span, have a better appreciation for nature, become more creative critical thinkers, and get better grades and test scores.

In addition to learning outcomes, over half of the teachers at the Leadership Institute were interested in behavioral and psychosocial outcomes. Specifically, they pushed for confirmation that children who participate in outdoor classrooms develop better social and emotional skills, have higher self-confidence, exhibit less stress, anxiety, and behavioral issues, and are simply happier.

Thirdly, teachers wanted to show how nature-based outdoor classrooms make for healthier children, including less obesity, healthier eating, and fewer allergies. In addition, teachers wanted to be able to prove that outdoor classrooms are safer than traditional playgrounds, and that sitting, as kids typically do in a traditional classroom, is actually hazardous to one’s health.

Two other categories emerged from our survey. Teachers looked for evidence that outdoor classrooms increase adult involvement in children’s education (including increased community and school involvement and increased parent involvement), and they wanted evidence of long-term outcomes for children, specifically that learning outdoors helps produce stable, functioning, contributing adults who engage in environmental stewardship.

We drew two conclusions from our survey. First, teachers are demanding! Second, it’s an exciting time to be doing research about outdoor environments and how they impact human health. While a number of studies are out there to support some of the above outcomes, there are plenty more to be done. And in addition to doing research, we can all help to disseminate the research results that are already out there, by letting people know the ways in which outdoor learning helps us support healthy developing kids.

Candace Bishop is an Undergraduate Research Scholar at UW-Madison.