Into the Woods: The Value of Outdoors in Education

Middle School Principal Paul Frantz
When we think of teaching and learning, perhaps we conjure up images of a classroom filled with desks and whiteboards, where the teacher lectures from the front of a class filled with students dutifully listening and taking notes.

While much of what we learn comes from the traditional “bricks and mortar” construct, we know there is much more to effective teaching and learning. We know that effective student learning involves student engagement through curiosity and exploration, relevant hands-on and collaborative projects.

Another, and often underappreciated, component to effective teaching and learning is time spent outdoors. Outdoor education complements and enhances our learning in the classroom. Outdoor experiences feed our intellectual and social-emotional growth.

When I think of the value of outdoor education, I often refer to my experiences at summer camp. Camps are designed to create an environment, in a natural setting, where children can leave behind the daily stressors created by popular culture and social media, that pressure children to grow into adulthood before they are ready. In the absence of these pressures, camp creates opportunities for children to connect with the natural environment, with others and, most importantly, themselves. Through many different experiences, children learn new skills in a fun and challenging environment. I often hear students, who have attended summer camp, talk about gaining a greater appreciation for the outdoors, learning to face fears, learning the value of taking risks… perseverance, strengthening their sense of self, and understanding the value of friendships and the importance of community.

While summer residential camping has been around well over a century, what we consider the modern outdoor education movement began over seven decades ago with organizations such as Outward Bound. For over thirty years, schools have been incorporating elements of outdoor education into their curriculum. There are many organizations that focus solely on outdoor educational experiences for schools.
Why this trend and what are the benefits of these experiences? Looking at over forty years of research, the evidence is compelling.

Several meta-analyses of research show that there is a correlation between academic/life success and outdoor education. Studies also suggest that just spending time in the outdoors has its benefits as well. In general, studies saw immediate positive effects and, depending on the focus and length of the program, these positive effects were sustained over time. The findings from this research can be summarized into three broad categories that highlight the positive effects of outdoor experiences: sense of self, community, and performance.

“I have changed how I act and see the world. I love and understand teamwork, I have defeated my fears, I am independent, friendly, and fearless.” - 8th grader

From a developmental standpoint, outdoor experiences help to nurture both intellectual and social/emotional development. Through fun but challenging activities children are pushed as individuals and as groups to step outside their comfort zones. Through these experiences children build self-confidence, independence as well as an appreciation of working together as a group. They also nurture creativity and build resilience as they face and overcome the challenges presented. Out of these experiences, children also develop empathy for others and their natural surroundings. They learn to take risks, experience failure and success in a healthy supportive environment allowing for this wonderful and important growth as individuals.

“This trip helped me to get to know my classmates and I grew close to many of them. I really liked how my group was always together and helping each other.” - 6th grader

Outdoor experiences also prompt a strong sense of community. Spending time in the outdoors, working together as a group, children learn their interdependence to each other and to their environment. These experiences engage children in ways that help to build positive attitudes and behaviors that promote civic mindedness and environmental stewardship. This work translates back into the school community, supporting a culture of caring for others and the world around them.

“We learned how to use things in our environment to help find solutions to our problems.” - 7th grader 

Research has also shown that students tend to have more positive feelings about school and the outdoors as well as raising expectations and standards for their own participation in learning. As a result, studies show that performance in school increases. This is largely due to the emphasis on self-reliance, as individuals and as a group, in the wilderness by being responsible for their own shelter, helping with food preparation, and collecting wood for the campfire. Problem-solving also is enhanced as they are often challenged to deal with these tasks in an ever-changing, natural environment. None of these essentials would happen without total engagement from all. 

The benefits of being outdoors is not just about camping in the wilderness. Students can reap the benefits of the outdoors at school and in our community. We have many opportunities within our Country Day community to connect with the outdoors while investing in learning. Country Day is well suited for this with our beautiful, open, 15-acre campus and intimate courtyards. Allowing our students to engage in the outdoors with friends during recess, studying in the library courtyard, working in the gardens, or sitting together on the lawn discussing Shakespeare help to further build and nurture all these values. These are a “natural” extension of outdoor education. 

At Country Day we see the benefits of outdoor education through our own practices and programs. While opportunities exist throughout the school, middle school focuses on more formal outdoor experiences. In sixth grade, students have a full two-day experience at a nearby state park that includes team building, learning camp craft skills, and canoeing on a bayou. The seventh-grade experience builds on the sixth-grade experience with a three day, point-to-point canoe experience, camping on sand bars, and learning more camp craft skills. In addition, the 7th grade tends the middle school garden and participates in the LSU Coastal Roots program. In eighth grade, students travel to the mountains of North Carolina for a week-long experience that includes three days backpacking, ropes course, rock climbing, and whitewater rafting. 

1) Get our students outdoors, out of their comfort zone, disconnecting from social media and technology, providing a common group experience. 
2) Challenge our students as individuals and as a group to take risks, to face their fears, to try new things that help to build self-confidence, and become more self-aware. 
3) Grow as a group with opportunities to learn the importance of working together, supporting each other, strengthening bonds, and enhancing the group experience. 
4) Gain a greater appreciation for the outdoors. 
At each grade, I have witnessed countless examples of children showing the courage to push themselves to take risks and to celebrate their accomplishments. I also observed great acts of kindness where students reached out to support a classmate, to ease their burden on the trail, to encourage them on the ropes course, and to support the efforts of the group as a whole. I also enjoyed seeing the students come together as a class, a community, all sharing this incredible experience together. 

Our challenge and opportunity as teachers is how to sustain the benefits of these valuable experiences at school and in the classroom. Throughout the year, our teachers, who chaperone these trips, draw from these experiences to create opportunities and remind the students of what is possible when they face their academic, extracurricular, and social challenges. 

“The hike up the mountain was so hard, I was scared I couldn’t make it. My friends encouraged and helped me up the trail. I surprised myself that I could make it to the summit. Watching the sunset with my friends, feeling like we were sitting on top of the world, was worth the struggle to get there.” - 8th grader 

In an age where children are spending up to ten hours a day on their devices playing video games, disconnected from the world around them, the need to connect to the outdoors has never been greater. As educators, understanding the value of going “into the woods,” we will continue to make these valuable experiences a priority. 
300 Park Road, Metairie, LA 70005 (504) 837-5204
Established in 1929, Metairie Park Country Day School is a coed private school for New Orleans area students in early childhood through Grade 12. From the elementary grades through upper school, the care and cultivation of each child comes to life in our exciting academic program, creative arts, and competitive athletic offerings.

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