How Nature-Based Learning Can Encourage Happier, Healthier Students
It’s no secret that this younger generation is spending much more time indoors than we ever did. There are more TV options, video games, and social media to keep them occupied. And while some of these technological advancements are great, the lack of time spent in nature is concerning.
In a recent inspirED by Galileo Clubhouse event, nature-based learning consultant Pilar Fortuny explained how important it is to get kids outside.
We weren’t meant to learn inside walls
While the term “nature-based learning” might be relatively new, the concept is not.
Think about all of the ancient philosophers that we still study in school and their ideas about how the world worked. They created these beliefs through observation in the natural world, where they had time and space to think.
“We have to get back to nature,” says Fortuny. “We need to get back to a life where the stress is lower, a life where you can focus on being yourself, and run and jump and climb trees...having emotions that you’re never going to be able to have inside a room.”
As a mother and educator, Fortuny thinks that learning in nature is paramount for genuine thought and learning to occur. And the research backs it up.
In a Harvard Health article, Claire McCarthy, MD writes that being outside actually improves our executive function—the skills that relate to working memory, flexible thinking, and self-control. It also allows children to take risks, which encourages playfulness and creativity.
The Benefits of Being in Nature
Research tells us that, by spending at least 120 minutes per week in nature, we can experience improvement in our health and wellbeing. In fact, evidence shows lower probabilities of cardiovascular disease, obesity, diabetes, mental distress, and even improved cognitive development in children.
Additional studied benefits include lowered levels of stress and cortisol (the stress hormone), an increase in Vitamin D levels (which regulates our immune systems), and improved mental clarity.
“The more time we spend in and with nature, the more we feel connected to it, and the more we remember that we are a part of it,” Fortuny explains. “This is something we seem to have forgotten as a society, but something that is crucial to remember.”
The Benefits of Learning in Nature
Nature-based learning is basically learning through exposure to nature or through nature-based activities. Ideally, students are able to learn outside, amongst plants, animals, and water; but nature-based education can happen by simply learning about the natural world.
Studies show that “when we’re outside, it’s a calmer, quieter, and safer context for the kids,” says Fortuny. “We all learn better in this type of space.”
The Yale School of the Environment reports that learning in nature is especially beneficial for children with Attention Deficit Disorder or students who struggle with aggression. Researchers have also found that being outside can promote feelings of calmness while improving mood.
There is “so much research and scientifically proven results” showing higher concentration and lower stress, according to Fortuny. Also, students who participate in nature-based learning “are more engaged, they are more physically active...they have better grades.”
The frustrating part is that, even though this evidence is out there, traditional schools “are not having nature-based learning. They are not going outside. In the schools, this is missing.”
Nature-Based Learning in Practice
For Fortuny, nature-based learning can be as simple as learning outside, or hosting a beach clean-up, which is easy to plan, and also allows students to connect with their community while helping the environment—a big part of nature-based education.
Students can learn about “reducing their environmental impact, along with the cost of [producing] waste, using water, the energy that we use...to make sure that you are educating the kids in sustainability,” Fortuny suggests.
This is obviously a big part of nature-based learning, but education in nature shouldn’t just be for science class.
“The smallest steps can be done” as a starting point, says Fortuny. “It’s not everything or nothing.” She explains that students can benefit from simply taking their laptops outside to the park and enjoying nature and fresh air while they learn. “Just start with the goal of spending 30% outside,” she suggests.
She also knows that not everyone has access to nature. “You don’t need an extraordinary forest or whatever; you can make it as simple as you need it to be.”
Why Traditional Schools aren’t Adopting Nature-Based Education
Throughout the years, Fortuny has worked with hundreds of teachers, and says that “it’s always the same: they are focused just on academics.”
This is a huge disadvantage for students, as academics is only one aspect of education. The other two, just as important aspects, are social and emotional learning, which “is something that nowadays is missing,” according to Fortuny.
Unfortunately, this is because schools are set up to prepare students for standardized exams, and many of the teachers’ performance evaluations are based on these scores.
“Traditional schools, they are really difficult to change,” says Fortuny. “And the truth is, we cannot change the system. We either create a new system or redefine it.”
Fortuny explains that most traditional schools are set in city centers. Most classes have about 30+ kids. Planning an outing to a local park with this many students often feels impossible. And so keeping them all in a classroom, in their seats, is easier.
Redefining Education with Nature in Mind
By unschooling, or enrolling children in programs like Galileo offers, Fortuny says we can “redefine education and do something from scratch… think differently about emotions, core social, core academics...do something to another level—a totally different level.”
She explains that most unschooling programs are based on Montessori-type methods, which encourage self-directed, hands-on learning, with collaborative play. And this, at its core, is nature-based learning.
During the Clubhouse discussion, a guest quoted something from the book, The Montessori Method: “For the physical life, it is necessary to have the child exposed to the vivifying forces of nature.”
Fortuny discusses this powerful impact of nature on children, saying that nature-based learning is “the main reason why we should exist...to get the kids back to reality.”
Since most dojos are based on these Montessori principles, and most of us unschoolers believe in holistic education, the switch to nature-based education should be an easy one. “We all believe in this type of holistic education,” says Fortuny, “but we are not following these philosophies...we need to get back to reality.”
Finding a Balance Between Today’s World and the Natural World
Despite all the evidenced benefits of nature-based learning, there’s still an important thing to consider: most students still need to use technology.
But, according to Fortuny, we can find a balance. “I’m not the kind of person who’s going to say not [to use] technology; I’m the opposite,” she says. “I think technology is really improving the way we are learning.”
The thing we really need to consider is the importance of giving kids a break from their screens.
Fortuny explains that in Barcelona, they hold “retirements” for teenagers, where they go without their phones for an entire week (minus a half-hour each day to talk to family). She says it’s hard at first, but step-by-step, they change. “When you see a kid in nature, they have another face,” she says. “They are happy.”
She explains, “Something inside them... they need to disconnect from social media, from filters of Instagram...from all of this fake life and connect to reality.”
One of the Clubhouse guests echoed this need to disconnect and shared an anecdote, about a Galileo dojo in Portugal, where a dad offers regular survival skill camps for the kids. They learn how to start a fire, how to make shelters. At first, they joke about learning how to survive a zombie apocalypse, but eventually, they think it’s “really cool.”
Start Nature-Based Learning Now, Little by Little
As Fortuny said earlier, you don’t have to go from a zero to 100% nature-based school. You don’t need fancy gardens or lush forests.
Start by spending one lesson outside, in a park, or even in the backyard. “Just make it as simple as you need it to be,” Fortuny encourages.
And if you live in a city where getting outside proves difficult, try bringing elements of nature inside: potted plants, small animals, running water. Children can still get some of the benefits of nature-based learning by bringing these natural elements indoors.
Remember that “the soul of [the] dojo should be emotional and social...and a big part of this soul should be in nature,” says Fortuny.”
Feeling inspirEd? There are plenty more opportunities to engage with these new, inspirational models of learning. Make sure to join our upcoming events!