Above: Image © kali9, iStockPhoto.com

Has anyone in your class ever begged your teacher to give the lesson outside? I grew up in Ottawa, Ontario. My classmates and I used to beg for this quite often, especially on those beautiful days in May and June. For some reason, lessons that seemed boring inside became really enjoyable when we were surrounded by green space.

Scientists wouldn’t be surprised that we felt this way. Many of them have concluded that being around nature can cause all kinds of positive emotions in people. It can even improve just about every part of people’s lives! Let’s learn how going outside can help you physically, psychologically, and even in the classroom.

The physical benefits of going outside

Are you one of those people who would like to be more fit, but can’t quite find the motivation and discipline to exercise regularly? Some researchers suggest that exercising outdoors might help you. That’s because people tend to perceive outdoor exercise as easier.

For example, researchers asked participants in one study to walk for a period of time both indoors and outdoors. In each case, participants could set their own pace. Interestingly, they tend to walk faster outside. But they also believed they’d worked less hard outside!

The psychological benefits of going outside

Do you ever find yourself stressed out? Many of us experience this feeling from time to time. Luckily, there are a number of things we can do to relieve it. For example…you guessed it! Going outside.

Scientists can measure an individual’s stress levels through changes in blood pressure, heart rate, and respiration rate. These three measurements tend to increase when we get stressed out, but decrease when we relax.

When we spend even a little bit of time in a natural environments, these three measurements tend to drop. That means just a little time in nature can help de-stress you!  If you suffer from stress often, try adding a little time outside into your daily routine. Studies suggest this can help your overall emotional well-being. And if you do feel anxious or depressed regularly, spending a bit of time outside can make these symptoms a little less severe.

Did you know? A 2016 survey in the United Kingdom showed that 75% of British children spend less time outside than prison inmates.

You may be wondering, why is it that nature brings out positive emotions in us while indoor environments do not? One explanation is that, for thousands of years, the natural environment housed the resources we need in order to stay alive, such as food and water.  Back then, some of our ancestors enjoyed spending time outdoors and some did not. The ones who had more positive emotional experiences in natural environments would have been more motivated to spend time in these environments. These ancestors would have been more likely to survive and pass on their genes to subsequent generations.

The benefits of going outside at school

Is your teacher worried about students getting distracted during an outdoor class? Tell them there’s no need to worry! A 2013 study showed that Swedish high school students who attended outdoor math and biology classes were able to remember the material better than students who attended the same classes indoors. Students in the outdoor classes also participated more in the lessons compared to students in the indoor classes.

In a 2017 study on Norwegian preschool children, researchers found that playing outdoors may help prevent children develop inattention and hyperactivity symptoms.

Did you know? When the concept of kindergarten was first introduced in the 1800s, it was supposed to be a garden for children, not of children. At that time, educators believed that placing children in a garden would help them develop social and intellectual skills. Research in later years supported this theory.

Time to hit the books outside?

At this point, you might be thinking, why can’t we just have all classes outside? While this might sound like a good idea, it’s not always a very practical one. There are many things in the outdoor environment that teachers can’t control, such as the weather.

Also, even though many studies have shown that having classes outdoors has benefits, researchers still do not fully understand this process. A lot of different variables (factors) can affect this process. The characteristics of the student is one example. Course design is another. For example, in that 2013 Swedish study, did students participate more outside simply because they were outside...or because of the way the class was designed?

In addition, some studies have shown that outdoor education doesn't necessarily have positive effects.

This is not to say that we should not try to do more teaching outdoors. But teachers and educators should be aware that it’s probably not a magic solution.

But there are definitely benefits to simply being outside. So no matter where you are, finding the closest bit of green space and taking advantage of it is sure to be worthwhile. Next time you’re bored on a nice day, try stepping outside and feeling the benefits of fresh air!

Let’s talk about it!

  • Would you like to have lessons outside? Why or why not?
  • Do you think some classes are better suited to outdoor lessons than others? If so, which ones? Explain your answer.
  • The article states that even a little bit of time outside can reduce stress levels almost instantly. Have you ever experienced this? If so, describe the situation.
  • Do you spend time outside regularly? If so, how? If not, why not? And if not, how would it be easy to make outdoor time part of your daily schedule? List any factors that would have to change (school/work schedule, personal responsibilities, available green space where you work/live, etc.)
  • Should schools make it mandatory for students to spend time outside every day? Why or why not?

Learn More!

Being Outdoors May Change the Way Your Brain Works, Study Says (2018)
Ducharme, TIME.

Effects of Regular Classes in Outdoor Education Settings: A Systematic Review on Students’ Learning, Social and Health Dimensions (2017)
Becker et al., International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health 14.

Time spent outdoors during preschool: Links with children's cognitive and behavioral development (2017)
Ulset, Journal of Environmental Psychology, 52.
Link to abstract. Registration or subscription required to view full text.

Health Reports: Outdoor time, physical activity, sedentary time, and health indicators at ages 7 to 14: 2012/2013 Canadian Health Measures Survey (2016)
Larouche et al., Statistics Canada.

Three-quarters of UK children spend less time outdoors than prison inmates – survey (2016)
Carrington, The Guardian.

The Effect of Contact With Natural Environments on Positive and Negative Affect: A Meta-Analysis (2015)
E.A. McMahan & D. Estes, The Journal of Positive Psychology 10.

This is your brain on nature (2015)
Williams, National Geographic.

Learning biology and mathematics outdoors: effects and attitudes in a Swedish high school context (2013)
Fägerstam & J. Bloom, Journal of Adventure Education and Outdoor Learning, 13.
Link to abstract. Registration or subscription required to view full text.

The great outdoors: how green exercise can benefit us all (2013)
V.F. Gladwell et al., Extreme Physiology & Medicine 2.

Jessie Thuswaldner

I am a medical student at the University of Ottawa and I plan to pursue a career in family medicine. I studied biology and psychology at Carleton University, where I was involved in research projects during the summers. I was able to combine my interests biology and psychology while contributing to research on stress. My work focused on oxidative stress, which people experience after strokes. Outside of school and work, one of my passions in life is music. I am a pianist, guitarist, vocalist, and composer. I am also an avid photographer, and I enjoy exploring new places for photo opportunities. In the summer, one of my favourite activities is going on canoe camping adventures in different parts of Ontario and Quebec. Finally, I have a tight-knit family and I love spending time with them as often as I can.

Je suis étudiante en médecine à l’Université d’Ottawa et je veux poursuivre une carrière en médecine familiale. J’ai étudié la biologie et la psychologie à l’Université Carleton, où j’ai participé à des projets de recherche pendant l’été. Ainsi, j’ai pu mettre à profit mon intérêt pour la biologie et la psychologie dans le cadre d’une étude sur le stress. Mes travaux portaient sur le stress oxydatif, que les gens subissent après un AVC. Dans mon temps libre, j’adore jouer de la musique. Je suis pianiste, guitariste, chanteuse et compositrice. Je suis également une photographe passionnée et j’aime visiter de nouveaux endroits pour prendre des photos. En été, j’adore faire du canot-camping dans différentes régions de l’Ontario et du Québec. Enfin, je passe du temps avec les membres de ma famille aussi souvent que je le peux.