Written by: Dr. Auriane Koster, Sustainability Manager
Living in the desert, spending any time outdoors, can be both a blessing and a curse. For eight months out of the year, while the rest of the country is cocooned indoors, we are able to hike, bike, swim, golf, and spend a substantial amount of time outside, enjoying the natural desert beauty our state provides. However, for the remaining four months, it is our time to hibernate, with the fear of heat stroke and sunburns a serious concern.
So what does this mean for our kiddos? Luckily, the best time of year to be outside happens to coincide with the school year, and schools can be the perfect place to ensure children get adequate time to play and learn outdoors. The Nature Conservancy found that 10 percent of kids say they are spending time outdoors every day. Kids spend about 10.4 waking hours a day relatively motionless as they sit in classrooms, play video games, watch television – anything other than being outside. This has increased obesity in our country. In 2012, the CDC reported that more than one third of children and adolescents were overweight or obese. This CDC report also stated that schools are one of the leading locations to help combat obesity; “Schools play a particularly critical role by establishing a safe and supportive environment with policies and practices that support healthy behaviors. Schools also provide opportunities for students to learn about and practice healthy eating and physical activity behaviors.” Not only can schools help combat obesity, but time spent outdoors can increase student performance, enrich classroom lessons, and promote our bodies’ natural circadian rhythms.
Time outside also ensures that our students are raised to be environmentally conscious and conscientious. When students spend more time outside, exploring and learning, they are more likely to want to continue to explore and discover the world around them. Many schools are allowing their kiddos to have outdoor time by planting gardens. Food gardens can not only be integrated into science and math lessons, they promote eating local, healthy, and location-appropriate foods. Students also get to learn about the importance of conserving important species such as birds, honey bees, and butterflies.
Outdoor classrooms are the perfect location to teach students about sustainability and help them become stronger future decision-makers. According to Charlene Briggs, an adjunct professor at Temple University, outdoor spaces can “illustrate the intimate interrelationship between personal and planetary health, foster creative systems thinking, and provide a space for reflective inquiry and experience in cooperative, hands-on problem solving.” These students are more likely to become well-rounded, thoughtful citizens, who will be better prepared to help solve some of the world’s challenges. If nothing else, they will be more prepared to live in this world.
But you do not have to only teach about the outdoors when you are outdoors. Some teachers find that the “best way to utilize the outdoors is to incorporate brief (15-20 minute) segments that help to clarify abstract concepts being taught indoors.” The Children and Nature Network provides many resources on the importance of connecting students to and teaching students in the outdoors. Overall, students that get to learn and play outdoors have improved performance on standardized tests, better classroom behavior, more engagement in learning, increased pride in their accomplishments, more motivation to learn, longer attention spans, decreased stress, and better sleep at night which prepares them for the next school day. Who doesn’t want all that for our kids?