Being outside has numerous benefits for students. Local educators share what they know
By Janhabi Nandy
Being in nature not only has tremendous benefits for our bodies and minds, it also shows us how much we depend on our environment, and inspires us to be stewards of the planet. A variety of local outdoor education programs are bringing these benefits — and many others — to young people.
One of these programs is Outward Bound, described by executive director Andrew Young as “using nature as a classroom for human development.” Outward Bound offers a range of short and long outdoor programs in the summer, including specially focused programs for Indigenous, LGBTQ+ and BIPOC youth. The organization fundraises to remove financial barriers to participation so a diversity of youth can participate. Outward Bound also works with schools to support outdoor education.
“Young people go on wilderness experiences and encounter real-life challenges,” says Young. “Then the focus is on transferring what is learned on a canoe trip to daily life.” Young observes how “nature is a novel environment where participants, faced with uncertainty and unpredictability, are forced to come together as a team.”
Another program is The Boundless School, which provides an alternative program to high school students struggling in the mainstream education system. Limited to 15 to 20 students at a time, the academic program offers creative outdoor integrated approaches to teaching curriculum.
“When studying World War I, the teacher had the kids dig trenches for a day,” says executive director Steven Gottlieb. He reflects on how an outdoor nature-based approach to learning profoundly impacts the students: “We have them building a trail on the grounds and you can see them take pride in contributing to something that will endure for centuries.” During the summer, The Boundless School opens programs to the public to fundraise for their academic year program, which is offered free to students referred to the school.
Learning support teacher David Stibbe leads the integration of outdoor and nature-based education into all grades at Kanata Montessori. Elementary school students are offered weekly forest school sessions, while junior high and high students go on outdoor leadership programs including activities like whitewater rafting and mountain biking. Stibbe describes the experience of some of the students on these expeditions: “First five days of a trip, some of them are waiting for it trip to be over; but in days six to nine, the magic starts to happen. They discover they are resilient, turn to help each other, and they come back confident that they can do things they never expected.”
All three leaders cite the body of research on the benefits of outdoor education and describe the unique learning experiences it offers. Stibbe reflects on the opportunity that outdoor education offers to introduce students to nature. “Kids don’t protect something if they don’t use it for their own recreation,” he says.
Young observes that many young people feel a “loss of control over future” and “see depths of challenges around climate change.” He has observed amongst program participants that “attitudes and feelings of helplessness can shift, change for the better.” As the program teaches to “leave no trace, pack out everything, leave the environment better than you found it,” participants realize what personal impact is and their potential to impact nature and influence their environment.
Stibbe describes how, for younger children, “they started not wanting to get dirty, and now they are playing in the dirt all the time.” Parents report to Stibbe how their children want to go for walks outside, while older students report taking their parents on new outdoor experiences.
Some of these approaches to education are being integrated in public schools, particularly during the pandemic, such as forest school days in elementary schools. “Outdoor programming can range in cost, so any school could do it in some way,” says Gottlieb. He hopes that teachers’ colleges might integrate outdoor and nature-based educational approaches into the curriculum to integrate the benefits of outdoor education into everyone’s education.