The benefits and challenges of outdoor education

Jean-Benoit Legault, The Canadian Press

Outdoor education has multiple benefits, both for teachers and for young people, but those who want to put it into practice face many challenges, the 89th Congress of the French Canadian Association for the Advancement of Science (ACFAS).

Even brief contact with nature can have positive effects on learning, retention and transmission, as well as attention, according to recent scientific studies.

Other research has linked outdoor education with reduced physical inactivity, increased light physical activity, and decreased blood pressure and risk of myopia. A reduction in anxiety and an increase in general well-being, self-efficacy and self-esteem are also mentioned.

“We don’t just go out to have fun and then play,” said Jean-Philippe Ayotte-Beaudet, holder of the research chair in Outdoor Education at the University of Sherbrooke. It’s not a problem to do it, but there are a lot of people who have preconceptions that if we go out, it’s just to have fun. (…) People who practice teaching to the fullest know that there are processes associated with teaching.

Despite all these obvious advantages, it is still difficult to know the place outside education (ie, learning situations that are taught in the open air and whose main purpose is to lead to learning) occupies in Quebec schools.

Researchers from the chair therefore asked 1,008 teachers in Quebec, both primary and secondary, to respond to a short online survey in December 2020 and January 2021. A further telephone follow-up was subsequently carried out in 133 of them.

The vast majority of participants taught in the public sector, mainly in a semi-urban environment.

Especially in primary education

First observation: the practice is more widespread in primary education than in secondary. A third of primary school teachers said they had taught outside in 2019 and 2020, but a further third admitted never having done so. The other third is represented by those who had taught outside of classes in 2019 (8.7%) or in 2020 (19.1%).

In high school, more than half of the teachers said they had never stuck their noses out with their youth for educational purposes. A quarter of the participants had given outdoor lessons in 2019 and 2020. Similar percentages of 7.4% and 10.7% did so in one of the two years.

This means that in total, almost 43% of the teachers who responded to this survey had never practiced outdoor education.

Unsurprisingly, at both levels, physical education and health rank first among the subjects most often taught outdoors. French, mathematics and science and technology in primary education. In secondary, positions 2 to 4 are occupied by science and technology, languages ​​and art.

Although the schoolyard is of course the place where these lessons take place most often, the participants also mentioned a municipal park, or even a forest area or a forest. The researchers were also surprised to find that several teachers revealed that they had a “furnished outdoor classroom” at their disposal.

Connecting young people to nature, using concrete contexts to learn and benefiting from a larger space are the three most often cited reasons for explaining the use of outdoor education.

Between 93% and 97% of outdoor teachers said they saw benefits for students’ well-being, motivation, learning and physical activity. However, only 63% saw an improvement in their young people’s attention.

“We don’t just learn formal content, we may have values ​​or feelings to develop,” said Mr. Ayotte-Beaudet.

Several teachers also testified of benefits to their own mental health.

Weather conditions and student management are some of the major obstacles for teachers taking their class into nature.

One survey participant said he had to reduce his number of outings compared to the previous year because of the presence within his group of young people who were a little too demanding. Another was pleased to have a large number of volunteer parents and pointed out that having extra eyes can be very valuable.

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