Outdoor learning and green time: How kids benefit from learning and playing in nature

Studies show that outdoor learning delivers many benefits — reducing stress, improving moods, boosting concentration, and increasing a child’s engagement at school.

girls outdoors studying pond water in a jar

What happens to children when they encounter trees and greenery? When they go for a brief nature walk, learn lessons outdoors, observe wildlife, or simply relax in front of a nature scene?

Such experiences can be exhilarating, fun, inspirational. For many people, they are an essential part of life. We owe children access to nature. It’s a human right.

Yet many kids are missing out.

For example, in a study of 11-year-olds living in a British city, researchers monitored how kids spent their time each day after school. Most kids spent less than 30 minutes outside during after school hours (Cooper et al 2010).

And in a survey of preschools in Ohio, half the children in full-day daycare spent less than 23 minutes each day outdoors. One in three kids spent no time outdoors (Copeland et al 2016).  

That’s alarming if you  agree that nature experiences are a human right. But even if you don’t, you should care about something else: The measurable psychological and educational impact of time spent in nature.

Studies indicate that playing and relaxing in natural settings can defuse stress. Brief nature walks can reduce anxiety, distraction, and symptoms of ADHD. And when schools take kids outside to learn, kids have become more motivated and self-directed.

Do these field trips spoil kids for conventional classroom work — making them too restless and distracted to settle down?

Research suggests otherwise. Lessons held outdoors appear to increase student engagement in school — even after they come back inside.

So the conclusion is inescapable. Here are the details.

The benefits of playing — and walking — in green spaces

Exposure to natural settings appears to have an intrinsic effect on our emotional and cognitive functioning. For example, consider the circumstantial evidence.

In a massive study tracking almost a million Danish children, researchers used satellite imagery to calculate how much greenery kids encountered in and around their homes during childhood.

The researchers focused on a zone of 200 meters around each child’s residence, and scored the density of vegetation. They also monitored children’s mental health outcomes. Were there any links?

To answer this question, researchers compared kids living at either ends of the “greenery” spectrum, and they found clear differences.

Kids who had grown up around the lowest levels of vegetation had a 30% higher risk of neurotic, stress-related, or psychosomatic disorders — even after researchers adjusted for the effects of socioeconomic status. The children were also at higher risk for mood disorders and substance abuse (Engemann et at 2019).

The findings are consistent with an earlier study of children living in rural communities of the United States:

Among kids experiencing life stressors (like bullying), the children who reported the fewest psychological problems were those who had greater access to nature. And once again, the link held even after accounting for socioeconomic factors (Wells and Evans 2003).

Both studies point to the psychological benefits of spending time in nature. But these studies report correlations only. They don’t provide us with strong evidence of causation. For that, we need experimental studies — studies where researchers can randomly assign participants to experience different “doses” of nature.  

What does the experimental evidence tell us?

Not surprisingly, nobody has attempted any long-term experiments on children. It wouldn’t be ethical! But many short-term experiments have been conducted — on both children and adults — and the results are telling.

In a series of experiments conducted in Japan, researchers assigned volunteers to take walks in both natural and urban settings. The walks were matched for length and physical difficulty, so people got similar amounts of exercise in both conditions. But the nature walks were linked with unique benefits, like reduced feelings of anxiety, and lower levels of the stress hormone, cortisol (Park et al 2010; Song et al 2014; Song et al 2015).

Researchers in the United States have performed a similar experiment on patients suffering from clinical depression, and found that nature walks improved people’s moods, and increased their performance on a test of concentration and short-term memory (Berman et al 2012). 

They have also tested the effects of nature walks on children with ADHD, or attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, and found that they, too, showed enhanced concentration abilities after a 20 minute nature walk (Taylor and Kuo 2009).

The kids in this study each took three different walks — one in a green space, and two in quiet, urban settings with minimal levels of foot traffic. But only the walk among greenery delivered attention benefits, and these benefits were substantial — “roughly equal to the peak effects of two typical ADHD medications” (Taylor and Kuo 2009). 

The results tie in with previous, correlational research: Kids who spend more time participating in “green” outdoor activities tend to have less severe attention deficit symptoms (Kuo and Taylor 2004).

So it appears that playing and walking among greenery is helpful. And what’s even more remarkable is that you don’t have to be physically active to experience the effects.

Just looking at nature can defuse stress and boost concentration

A growing number of studies suggest that people can experience emotional and cognitive enhancements from merely looking at scenes of nature (Velarde et al 2007).

That’s especially important when you consider how much of the time kids are required to remain indoors. Might kids reap benefits from looking out a window? It appears so.

In one experiment, researchers randomly assigned high school students to classrooms that were either

  • windowless,
  • containing a window that looked out onto trees and other greenery, or
  • containing a window that looked out onto a human-built environment.

The students were each attached to sensors that monitored heart rate variability and other physiological markers of stress. Then the students were given 30 minutes of work to do — tasks that included public speaking, mathematical calculations, and proofreading.

Such efforts can fatigue one’s attention span and working memory skills, which is why it helps to take a break. But does it matter what you do during that break? Does it matter if you have a window to look out of?

The researchers wanted to know, so immediately after the 30 minute work session ended, they gave students a standard test of working memory and attention. Then, after a ten minute break, they re-administered the test, and looked for changes.

Only the students provided with a “green view” showed improvements in attention and working memory.

Furthermore, these students experienced faster recovery from the stress associated with the school tasks.

The students with the windows overlooking buildings or parking lots showed no such improvements after the break. And in this respect, their outcomes were indistinguishable from those of students who had no window at all (Li et al 2016).

Outdoor learning among third graders: Refueling students in flight

To benefit from nature experiences, must we stop working? Or can nature experiences benefit us even while we are studying and learning? 

This was the question that interested Ming Kuo and her colleagues, so they secured the help of a couple of third grade teachers to investigate.

The researchers asked the teachers to present a 10-week long life science curriculum to each of their classes.

Every week, teachers taught one lesson outdoors, in a green space.

On a different day that same week, teachers also taught a second life science lesson indoors, carefully designed to match the outdoor lesson in key ways:

  1. Both lessons were taught by the same teacher.
  2. Both lessons were held at roughly the same time of day.
  3. Both lessons included hands-on activities, and, when appropriate, featured natural materials (like leaves or seeds).
  4. Both lessons treated the same topic (for example, the identification of different types of leaves), with the second lesson representing an extension of ideas introduced during the first lesson.

To control for the order in which the two lessons were presented, some weeks scheduled the outdoor lesson first; others scheduled the indoor lesson first.

After each lesson, students were given brief bathroom breaks. Then they continued the school day in their regular classrooms, where a researcher (who wasn’t told what sort of lesson the students had just completed) joined them for a 20 minute observation period.

During this observation period, the researcher noted how many times students had to be redirected by their teacher to stay on task. Did a student require a reminder to get back to work? That counted as a “redirect.” Did a student need to be told to sit down? Or stop talking out of turn? Or otherwise require prompting from the teacher?

All of these instances were tallied up, giving the researchers an objective measure of how distracted or disengaged students were. A high number meant kids were frequently off-task. A low number indicated they were engaged. Kuo’s team also collected self-reports from teachers and students, and compared the data across conditions.

Altogether, the researchers had 20 observation periods to analyze, but the results were clear-cut. 

Kids consistently showed more engagement immediately after returning from the outdoor lesson.

In fact, the researchers note, “the number of redirects after a lesson in nature was roughly half (54%) that of redirects after a classroom lesson.”

After the indoor lesson, teachers had to deal with approximately one interruption every three and a half minutes. After the outdoor lesson,  interruptions occurred only once every 6 and a half minutes — a difference that any third grade teacher will tell you is important (Kuo et al 2017).

Evidence that outdoor learning helps older kids, too

Does outdoor learning primarily benefit young children, who have more trouble staying on task to begin with? Studies of older kids suggest otherwise.

For example, research indicates that tweens and teens do a better job of keeping themselves focused and motivated when they learn lessons in outdoor, natural settings (Dettweiler et al 2015; Dettweiler et al 2017).

In addition, high school students may show better long-term retention of academic content if they learn it outdoors (Fägerstam et al 2013).

And research hints that outdoor learning may help older kids maintain healthy stress hormone rhythms (Dettweiler et al 2017a).

So why is outdoor learning beneficial?

One spoiler explanation is that kids are merely responding to the novelty. For many kids, going outside to learn is something new, and this alone could inspire them to pay more attention.

But researchers doubt this was an important factor in the study of the third graders receiving 10 weeks of outdoor nature lessons. 

If novelty were responsible for increased student engagement, we’d expect to see the effect wear off as the weeks rolled by. Researchers saw no evidence of this (Kuo et al 2017).

This leaves us with other possibilities. Maybe kids just need a change of scene every so often — even if this means revisiting a series of different, but familiar places. 

It’s also likely that outdoor learning helps because it incorporates several factors beneficial in their own right — like bright light and exercise (which enhance attention and mood).

But we should keep in mind that researchers have found evidence for a “nature effect” above and beyond the effects of daylight and exercise.

For example, in the window experiment, students experienced similar levels of daylight regardless of the view outside. But only students exposed to a view of nature (trees) experienced enhanced concentration and better stress recovery.

And in the walking experiments, researchers controlled for the mood-enhancing effects of physical exercise by making both types of walk — urban and green — equally long and equally difficult.

So we need to recognize that there is something special about being in nature. 

For many of us, witnessing nature is intrinsically rewarding. It can inspire positive emotions and meaningful, introspective experiences.

It might be the beauty, or the awe-inspiring forces we witness — like the rush of water, or the controlled dive of a bird. 

It might be that being surrounded by other, nonhuman living things and geological features makes us aware of being part of something much bigger than ourselves. 

It might be the perspective we discover during immersions in nature:  the awareness that our everyday, human doings represent only a small sliver of reality.

Such realizations are prized in many spiritual traditions, and experiments confirm they help us cope with stress. To the degree that kids share these sensibilities — or learn to associate nature with pleasant, invigorating, or uplifting experiences — that’s bound to affect the way they react to outdoor learning. 

If teachers also experience these effects, that would be an added bonus. As Ming Kuo and her colleagues speculate:

“Teachers, just as much as students, might benefit from all these aspects of lessons in nature — perhaps teachers are able to teach in a more engaging way after a bit of walking, a bit of a breather and change in scenery, and a dose of nature has rejuvenated their attention and interest and reduced their stress levels.” 

And a recent study suggests an additional factor. Researchers interviewed 12-year-olds about their outdoor learning experiences, and discovered a recurring theme.

Many kids felt they had more autonomy during outdoor lessons, and they felt inspired to take charge of their own learning (Dettweiler et al 2017b). For instance, one student said:

“I liked it to have had permission to do everything myself. It’s really nice, that one is allowed to think a little and do experiments.”

So perhaps that’s a crucial ingredient — allowing students more leeway to take the initiative.

More reading

Interested in ideas for outdoor learning? See this guide to preschool science activities, and this article about teaching young children about wildlife through outdoor learning

In addition, my article about the evolutionary art of tracking considers the cognitive challenges posed by reading the signs left behind by animals.

Of course, you can also play when you’re outdoors, and studies suggest outdoor play benefits kids in a variety of ways. Learn more about it in this Parenting Science article.

To read more about the benefits of taking a break from academic work, see these guides: 

For more information about attention and focus, see my articles about ADHD and teaching self-control.

And for more evidence-based information about education and schooling, see these pages.


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 Content of “Outdoor learning” last modified 2/2018

Girls studying pond water in a jar by istock / monkeybusinessimages