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OSU Extension

College of Food, Agricultural, and Environmental Sciences

October 26, 2020 - 3:40pm --

Who is responsible for getting children outside to learn, play, and engage with the natural world?


From microchips to concrete, all resources are initially derived from the environment. Environmental literacy is a competency that is equally as important as learning to read and count. One does not need to know the specifics of the natural world, but should have an appreciation for the cycles, the elements, and power of the environment.

As an educator it can be challenging to consider how to get students learning outside. There are a variety of obstacles and questions. Are children allowed to learn outside, where will they learn, what will they learn, who is responsible for encouraging this, and what classroom management techniques work?

The answer to all these questions can be found in developing one’s own capacity for and becoming confident in the practice of outdoor education. The only way to get better is to try.

Educators must be confident in; their content knowledge, environmental literacy, classroom management, communication skills and curiosity to develop a high-quality experience for students.  

Why would an educator want to develop this competency and confidence? Because it is good for the students.

  1. Social Development:
    1. Through an outdoor learning research study, “the results showed a significant difference for cooperative teamwork, leadership ability, as well as the ability to cope with changes” (Mohd Taib Harun, 2014) when engaged in outdoor learning. This positive change will provide greater student confidence and cooperation leading to greater achievement.
  2. Emotional Development:
    1. Hands-on outdoor programs appear to have the biggest impact to students' increased intrinsic motivation (Ulrich Dettweiler, 2019)
  3. Physical Development:
    1. According to Dr. Claire McCarthy, MD, Assistant Professor, Harvard Medical School, “We need sun exposure to make vitamin D, a vitamin that plays a crucial role in many body processes, from bone development to our immune system” (Claire McCarthy, 2018).

Educator engagement and enthusiasm is key to getting students learning outdoors, but the weight is not just on the shoulders of an educator. It is also on the shoulders of the families and administrators as partners.

Physically students will need the appropriate gear for the weather. In the warmer months that means breathable clothing, comfortable shoes, potentially a hat and sunglasses. As the weather cools students need waterproof gear, heavier soled shoes, warmer coats and eventually a hat and gloves. All of this can be a challenge for each student. The responsibility of ensuring that youth have adequate gear is a shared responsibility between the educator, the family, and the children.

As an educator it is important to keep in mind that outdoor seating, natural barriers, and hand sanitizer are all important parts of developing an outdoor classroom space. The responsibility of creating an adequate outdoor classroom is a combined responsibility between the educators and the administrators.

To make outdoor learning easier several local organizations, state agencies and national programs have developed tools to aid those hoping to learn outdoors. The national extension system, local parks, and nature centers all have staff ready to help engage youth in learning outdoors and have seasoned professionals ready to share their knowledge with educators.

Connecting to educational resources like 4-H Project Books, Project Green Tree, EPA and USDA resources will help jumpstart and enhance traditional classroom lesson plans. Additionally, educators can focus their attention on learning about outdoor safety, stress management, and take some virtual fieldtrips to learn more about how to teach outdoors.

The most important part of teaching youth outdoors is to be confident, be prepared, and have fun. Learning should not be a burden, it is a right, it is joy, and it is a cycle. How students learn is often how they will teach. Be an educator who inspires students to grow!


Works Cited

Claire McCarthy, M. (2018, May 22). 6 reasons children need to play outside. Retrieved from Harvard Health Publishing:

Mohd Taib Harun, N. S. (2014). Promoting Social Skills through Outdoor Education and Assessing Its’ Effects. Asian Social Science. doi:10.5539/ass.v10n5p71

Ulrich Dettweiler, G. L. (2019). A Bayesian Mixed-Methods Analysis of Basic Psychological Needs Satisfaction through Outdoor Learning and Its Influence on Motivational Behavior in Science Class. Frontiers in Psychology: Educational Psychology. doi: