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Why Nature Reigns Supreme

By: Mary Runkel & Jennifer Pierce

Students come back from Outdoor Lab changed. Some in subtle ways, others in big ways. We hear about these changes- of maturity, of taking responsibility, of looking at the world differently- from parents, teachers and the students themselves.

So, it’s clear that something is happening. Many of our supporters have had similar experiences. Intuitively, people can determine that being outdoors, or learning outdoors is good for us.

But what’s actually happening in the brain and in the body? Why is there such a change in these students? Why do adults feel better after a walk, or after a hike in the woods? We wondered too, and wanted to help answer some of these great questions. We studied and discovered a lot of great research that shows it is beneficial for people’s brains and bodies to be outside, and this is what we found:

 

 

Being Outdoors Aids in Learning: 

Learning outside, like the learning that takes place at Outdoor Lab, has many benefits - it increases students’ motivation and helps them know when and how to take certain, healthy risks. Here are some ways it can affect learning according to our research.

  • Creates sense of place + civic involvement: Outdoor experiences help students expand their understanding of natural and human communities, often leading to a sense of place. If a person feels connected to a place, they develop stronger environmental viewpoints and civic behaviors. In sum, being outdoors can be the foundation of raising the next generation of citizens who take care of their surroundings (At Outdoor Lab, we call this STEWARDSHIP!)
  • Increases motivation: Kids who participated in an outdoor education program as part of their science curriculum reported more motivation to learn. They also felt more competent. “The kids are more affected by the teaching in the outdoors than they are in the indoors,” this study from the University of Stavanger Norway reports.
  • Aids in risk management + coping with change: Things don’t always go as planned when outside, as we know. For instance, the weather can change. The terrain is uneven. There's no wifi. Taking kids out to learn in these situations can help them cope with risk versus reward and adapt better to change.
  • Develops learning + life skills: Outdoor education is known as “active learning”, which helps students discover how to respond to opportunities, challenges and responsibilities. They’re put into real life, changing situations that make them use critical thinking skills.
  • Increases self-esteem: According to BBC Earth, children exposed to the natural world showed increases in self-esteem.

 

 

Being Outdoors Is Good for Mental Health:

Nature helps put our bodies into balance- from our circadian rhythm (sleep cycle) to altering chemicals in the brain.

  • Better sleep: Natural daylight helps maintain a normal sleep cycle, so people are more likely to feel tired when it’s dark out and awake when it’s light. Daylight also shuts off the body’s outflow of melatonin, a hormone produced in the brain that makes people feel sleepy. According to one study, a 15-minute walk at the same time each day (preferably in the mornings) can give the body a clear signal that it’s no longer night.
  • Reduced stress, anxiety + depression: Spending only 30 minutes walking in calm, nature-dense areas cause a decrease in cortisol production.
    • Cortisol is the body’s main “stress” hormone that works with the brain to control mood. When cortisol levels are raised, stress is considered higher.
  • Life satisfaction: One study found that people with a strong connection to nature experienced more life satisfaction, positive affect and vitality. This may be related to nature’s role in a person’s overall health (like reduced stress levels, increased resilience and physical wellness).
  • Improves mood + attention span: Richard Louv coined the term “Nature Deficit Disorder” in his book Last Child in the Woods. He argues that as people spend more time indoors, they feel more alienated from nature, which may cause them to be more vulnerable to negative moods or reduced attention span.
  • Sharpens short-term memory: One experiment found that students who were given a memory test and then walked through a garden-scape had 20% more memory recall than their counterparts who instead walked down a city street.

 

 

Being Outdoors Is Good for Physical Health:

Not only are things happening in the brain, but people's bodies respond well to natural processes, too. Vitamin D, for instance, is crucial in bone development. 

  • Promotes healthy bones: Vitamin D is aids in forming and maintaining healthy bones. Without it, calcium (the primary component of bone) cannot be absorbed. Vitamin D may also be helpful in managing or preventing: cancer, cognitive health, multiple sclerosis, osteoporosis, psoriasis and other ailments.
    • The human body makes vitamin D when it converts sunlight into an active form of the vitamin (called calciferol).
  • Weight management: Did you know a person burns ~150 calories each half-hour of walking on flat ground? Now, imagine taking a walk in the mountains with steep terrain! Biking can burn ~370 per each half-hour. Nature is a free way to get the body moving- with great health benefits. 
  • Increases white blood cells: One study found that a three-day trip fully immersed in the outdoors significantly increased the number of white blood cells in a human’s body, and the levels lasted for 30 days after the trip. White blood cells are crucial to help the body battle germs by recognizing when harmful intruders invade- white blood cells fight back with antibodies.
  • Improves vision: Learning or studying in dim or artificial lighting increases your risk of becoming nearsighted. This is because indoor lighting makes the eyes work harder in order to focus on the content.

 

References:

Charles, C. (2010). Outdoor Education Research For School Grounds. Retrieved from https://www.uwsp.edu/cnr-ap/leaf/school-grounds/documents/outdoor education research for school Grounds.pdf

Coles, J. (2016, April 20). How Nature is Good For Our Health and Happiness. Retrieved from http://www.bbc.com/earth/story/20160420-how-nature-is-good-for-our-health-and-happiness

Frontiers. (2019, April 4). Just 20 minutes of contact with nature will lower stress hormone levels, reveals new study. ScienceDaily. Retrieved March 24, 2020 from www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2019/04/190404074915.htm

Hattie, Marsh, Neill, and Richards. (2001). What is Outdoor Learning. Retrieved from https://www.englishoutdoorcouncil.org/what.is.outdoor.learning.html

Pruthi, S. (2017, October 18). Vitamin D. Retrieved from https://www.mayoclinic.org/drugs-supplements-vitamin-d/art-20363792

Sprouse, S. (2017). 10 Reasons Why Being Outside is Important. Retrieved from https://askthescientists.com/outdoors/

Stone, C. (2018). The Sun. Retrieved from https://www.lifequestnursinghome.org/2015/06/the-sun/

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