Thank you to Jan Ellinger, PhD Candidate at Technical University of Munich, Germany, Dr. Christoph Mall, Researcher at Technical University of Munich, Germany, and Dr. Mads Bølling, Researcher at Steno Diabetes Center Copenhagen, Denmark, for providing this post.
A major silver lining of the global pandemic has been the broad reengagement with the outdoors, including at schools. As teachers contemplate bringing their classrooms outdoors for better ventilation, physical distancing and simply to get outside, front of mind is whether school lessons can be conducted outdoors in a meaningful way.
Fortunately, outdoor learning, and more specifically the concept of Education Outside the Classroom (EOtC) has been a focus of research interest for several years. Previous research has demonstrated possible benefits of teaching children during school hours outside of school buildings — usually in green spaces— in accordance with the curriculum. The benefits relate, for example, to physical activity, social development, and academic achievement.
It has also been shown that EOtC and outdoor learning can be beneficial for the motivational regulation of students. For example, in 2017, a German group of psychology researchers showed that junior high school students experienced increased intrinsic motivation during an outdoor curriculum-based ‘research week’ in the Alps, compared to an indoor school context. A similar conclusion was drawn by Danish researchers from the large-scale TEACHOUT project. They examined the influence of weekly EOtC over the course of one school year on school motivational aspects among more than 300 students, 9-13 years of age. Compared to seven traditional indoor classes, intrinsic motivation improved among students participating in the EOtC, particularly among those students who had already shown a high level of intrinsic motivation in school beforehand.
In January 2022, German researchers published a new study extending the above findings. In the paper, “Health-related Quality of Life, Motivational Regulation and Basic Psychological Need Satisfaction in Education Outside the Classroom: An Explorative Longitudinal Pilot Study” published in BMC Public Health, fifth graders attending EOtC curricular lessons for a full school day every week for a semester in a nearby forest were compared to a parallel class of students receiving traditional indoor teaching. The EOtC class showed consistent intrinsic school motivation over the course of 4 months, while the indoor class showed a substantial decline in intrinsic school motivation over the same time period, resulting in a significant difference between the two groups. A similar pattern emerged with regard to ‘identified motivation’, an indicator of teaching that is of personal importance and valued by the student. A possible explanation for this finding is that EOtC is characterized as more student-centered compared to traditional teaching.
Such a student-centered teaching approach is possible in EOtC due to the typical structure of the outdoor learning environment. Outdoors, there is room for students to work undisturbed, on their own, in pairs or in larger groups. The environment also often lends itself to more practical and meaningful learning experiences. For example, outdoor spaces are often suited to an increased focus on experimental learning using green spaces as a source for gathering empirical data.
Collectively these observations suggest that EOtC is a viable way to prevent the decline in school motivation typically seen during adolescence and over the course of a school semester. Future research should examine whether this effect is also reflected in increased academic performance, as well as in a reduced general sense of stress in and beyond school hours. Such an investigation would help determine whether an improvement in the psychological well-being of students can also be achieved through improved motivational regulation.
As a final note, a recent study from a Danish research group demonstrated that EOtC conducted in green space outside the school ground is most beneficial in promoting students’ physical activity compared to EOtC taking place at non-green environments, for instance in visits to art museums, theatres or local grocery stores.
Many good reasons to take our children outdoors—during leisure time and for educational purposes!
- Becker, C., Lauterbach, G., Spengler, S., Dettweiler, U., & Mess, F. (2017). Effects of Regular Classes in Outdoor Education Settings: A Systematic Review on Students’ Learning, Social and Health Dimensions. Int J Environ Res Public Health, 14(5). https://doi.org/10.3390/ijerph14050485
- Dettweiler, U., Lauterbach, G., Becker, C., & Simon, P. (2017). A Bayesian Mixed-Methods Analysis of Basic Psychological Needs Satisfaction through Outdoor Learning and its Influence on Motivational Behavior in Science Class. Front Psychol, 8, 2235. https://doi.org/10.3389/fpsyg.2017.02235
- 3. Bølling, M., Otte, C. R., Elsborg, P., Nielsen, G., & Bentsen, P. (2018). The association between education outside the classroom and students’ school motivation: Results from a one-school-year quasi-experiment. Int J Educ Res, 89, 22-35. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.ijer.2018.03.004
- Ellinger, J., Mess, F., Blaschke, S., & Mall, C. (2022). Health-related quality of life, motivational regulation and Basic Psychological Need Satisfaction in Education Outside the Classroom: an explorative longitudinal pilot study. BMC Public Health, 22(1), 49. https://doi.org/10.1186/s12889-021-12450-9
- Bølling, M., Mygind, E., Mygind, L., Bentsen, P., & Elsborg, P. (2021). The Association between Education Outside the Classroom and Physical Activity: Differences Attributable to the Type of Space? Children, 8(6), 486. https://doi.org/10.3390/children8060486