Go Play Outside!

Director of Lower School Ingrid Moore shares the academic and social-emotional benefits of time spent in nature.

“Go play outside!” This was a familiar response during my childhood when I was looking for something to do. I would invariably find something outside to capture my attention, whether it was in the backyard or with friends in the neighborhood.

Sadly, young children today find fewer and fewer opportunities to play and learn outside. A National Trust survey in England found that kids today spend only half the amount of time playing outdoors as their parents did. While I have memories of being outside at all times of day—running and playing with friends in all kinds of weather—21st century children are much less likely to engage in this kind of activity.

There are numerous reasons for this, including the appeal and access of technology, the width and breadth of after-school activities, and the widely held view that we are just busier today than anyone has ever been before. While all of this may be true, and we certainly are better off today in many ways than in recent history, have we stopped to consider what we’ve lost among all of these gains? Is it possible that children today are missing out on essential experiences that would enable them to be happier, calmer, and more focused?

Based on considerable scientific evidence from universities and institutions around the world, the answer to this question would appear to be yes. However, reclaiming the advantages afforded by nature for our children is as easy as walking out the front door.

Being outside, or “eco-therapy,” as it is referred to in academic circles, confers immediate and undeniable benefits to people including improved mood, better attention, and even enhanced creativity. At Stanford University, Gregory Bratman and his colleagues have conducted several studies on the benefits of nature and have found that people who spend even a brief amount of time outside in nature are happier and have greater attention. Yale University professor Stephen Kellert conducted a study in 2005 that found that nature is essential to children’s development in many ways both intellectually and emotionally. Another study from the American Institutes for Research found that schools in the United States that incorporate the outdoors and nature into the school day report student gains in the core academic domains, including reading and math.

At Steward, we are tracking this research and purposefully taking advantage of the scientifically proven benefits of being in nature. We regularly look for ways to conduct lessons outside in ways that help students understand the connection between the natural and built environment, as well as integrating short outdoor breaks for our students.

There are regular opportunities for our students to plant, observe, and harvest in the Bryan Lab gardens, journal by the pond, have class outside, and even read a book in the “twigloo.” In the Lower School, teachers are now also taking their students outside for a quick morning break in addition to the traditional midday recess. This opportunity to be outside has had immediate and lasting positive effects. When a second-grade teacher asked her students about it, she noted their responses:

“Many children responded that playing outside gets rid of their wiggles and helps them think better. Others look forward to chatting with friends, including those in other classes. Taking a break for child-directed play and interaction with friends has a huge impact. Children return to class relaxed, happy, and ready to focus on learning. We love our ‘run-around-time!’”

We are also thrilled that our second installment of LEAD Week (Learning in the Environment through Authentic Discovery) in the Junior Kindergarten will take place the week of May 15, 2017. Spending the majority of their days outside, our youngest students will get the benefits of fresh air and trees while also gaining a new perspective on where and how learning takes place. Last year’s LEAD Week found the kids making observations about weather and the water cycle, talking about animal behavior and habitats, and using natural materials to complement their learning in language arts and math.

This year, during LEAD Week, in addition to outdoor learning that celebrates foundational skills in literacy and math, the students will be engaged in activities such as:

  • Junior Kindergarten teacher Kris Marchant and Bryan Innovation Lab Academic Dean Laura Akesson will lead the students in creating a large-scale bird’s nest in the Bryan Lab. Using both natural materials and cardboard, the children will enhance their study of birds and nature with this engineering challenge.
  • Lower School Librarian Betty Enright will lead a study in animal adaptation that includes books and hands-on lessons.
  • Lower and Upper School music teacher Bonnie Anderson plans to bring music outside with specially designed outdoor instruments that may become a permanent fixture of the Lower School playground.
  • Lower School art teacher Lynn Zinder will lead the students in using a combination of "natural paintbrushes" and found objects to create masterpieces on handmade paper.

During LEAD Week, our youngest students will not only engage with the natural environment, but they’ll gain a better understanding of how it integrates into their everyday world. We’re intentionally creating space for our students to explore, discover, and learn.

When I was a child, parents weren’t encouraging us to go outside because they had read the most recent brain research on the benefits of nature. They were probably just trying to get us out from underfoot as dinner was being made. Little did they know the gift they were giving us. In today’s busy world, it often feels impossible to provide our children with everything that they need. But, as parents and educators, we have the opportunity to give them something that will have immediate positive benefits.

Here at Steward, we are committed to offering our students rich and frequent opportunities to take advantage of the outdoors in ways that enhance their learning. At home this afternoon, you can play a part too. Encourage them to “go play outside!”





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