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The Benefits of Learning Outdoors

As a former teacher, trainer, headteacher, I know that whenever I have asked staff to

 ‘Think of a time when you really enjoyed learning as a child…’

nearly all the participants talk about an experience that they had outdoors.

We know that the pandemic has provided some children with more opportunities to be outdoors in green spaces but for others this has been much more limited. Why does it matter?

Impact of being and learning outdoors on children:

We often observe that children for whom the classroom environment has not been a good fit come alive and connect when provided with the opportunity to learn in a different less confined context.

There are numerous studies to show the benefit of outdoor learning on children and young people’s outcomes:

  • Improved wellbeing
  • Increased engagement levels in learning
  • Improved concentration
  • Improved basic skills
  • Improved physical co-ordination.

From 2017-2019 the Wildlife Trusts commissioned the Institute of Education at University College London to carry out research into the impact of wildlife activities run by the trust on 8-9-year-olds:

One of the other key findings was that:

‘Children showed an overall increase in their personal wellbeing and health, with the greatest improvement being in those who initially reported low levels.’

There are few specific studies on the impact of being outdoors on children experiencing loss, grief, bereavement and trauma but from what we know more generally about the physiological and emotional benefits of nature, we can assume that this will help as:

  • The sun helps to regulate circadian rhythms for a better night's sleep.
  • A 2019 study found that spending time just 20 minutes outdoors will reduce cortisol levels in the body; numerous studies have found that being outdoors and, especially, connecting with nature, reduces stress levels.
  • Experiencing awe and wonder outdoors can raise dopamine levels and promote a sense of wellbeing, kindness and other positive behaviours. A decrease in the release of inflammation promoting chemicals [called cytokines] can also occur. This is important for mental health as an excess of cytokines has been linked to depression.
  • When you are outdoors you breathe in chemicals released by trees and plants called phytoncides. These chemicals may support the human immune system.

(With thanks to Nicola Cunnington and Jade Pierce from the Trauma Responsive Organisation at Barnardo’s)

How can we make outdoor learning work for in schools?

Many of you work in settings and schools where you will have embraced outdoor learning through the provision of quality learning environments for the youngest children, and maybe older, throughout the day. Forest school; gardening areas; afterschool clubs; residentials and trips out all feature on the curriculum planning of many schools. However, the pressures of developing individual lesson plans with clear outcomes can mean that learning does not take place outdoors as an integral part of the curriculum.

There are clear differences in working outdoors with children and young people which can present as barriers:

  • Children are more physically active -they will not be sitting in fixed groups and teachers may feel it is harder to control the class in these situations.
  • Learning can be more open-ended, links between curriculum areas are natural and therefore it can be harder to pin down to specific key learning objectives.

However, given our experience of the pandemic and the lockdowns and the growing importance of nature and the outdoors in people’s lives, use of the outdoors for learning, together with the benefits for people’s wellbeing may become a bigger feature of schools’ timetables.

What about supporting older children and children who are distressed?
It can be a daunting prospect working with children who are experiencing and have experienced loss, bereavement and trauma outdoors; classroom walls no longer provide the physical containment; the space and what children can do in this space is less restricted and could be therefore harder to control; health and safety considerations are greater - staff may not feel confident working with the children in an outdoor space because of these factors.

The development of staff confidence and skills, together with clear safety procedures are therefore crucial steps to enabling the creation of quality learning experiences that benefit the children who need it the most and that are therapeutic for them.

Staff who are trained in trauma-informed approaches will be able to co-regulate, contain and maintain high levels of safety.

Want to develop this way of working?

Invest time in:

  • Creating a vision for your school
  • Developing a plan of action
  • Providing CPD for staff on working outdoors which is experiential so that staff can understand what it feels like to be safe and contained.
  • Sharing best practice
  • Developing policies and guidelines for working outdoors

Here is a case study from a school…

Pathhead Primary school: Nurture approaches in Nature

Pathhead Primary School is located in Kirkcaldy, Fife. The school serves a community in Kirkcaldy that experiences multiple deprivation. After a period of change, the school was facing the challenge of supporting many pupils with distressed behaviour and managing the regular interruptions to classroom work this caused.

Pathhead Primary School worked with a local provider of outdoor learning. This charity employed staff who specialised in therapeutic approaches in nature. The charity provided experiential learning for staff – the opportunity to use an in-service day to be guided through activities in nature.

This allowed staff to experience what therapeutic practice in nature might feel like as a participant.

It also gave the hard-working staff team a break from the demands of their role for a day.

The charity then supported class teachers to provide regular outdoor learning opportunities in local greenspaces. These were not without challenge, but the staff persevered knowing that pupils were benefiting from time in nature even when the walk to/from with woods could feel nerve-wracking.

The school adopted an ‘achievement centre’ model which supported those learners who were struggling to access classroom learning the most. Time in nature was integrated into the achievement centre. Small groups of pupils could access outdoor therapeutic opportunities supported by school staff as well as practitioners of therapeutic practice in nature. While some of these sessions might be themed around confidence building, emotional literacy, gaining a Join Muir Award, many were simply about the experience of exploring outdoors with trauma-informed practitioners supporting the group.

Children and young people loved the opportunity to visit different woodland and coastal areas on their doorstep, to explore, run through the woods, paddle in the sea and experience a sense of freedom. Relationship-based practice was at the heart of these sessions as supporting staff looked for opportunities to develop trust and communication. The group ate snack together outdoors, shared hot chocolate on cold days and had the opportunity to explore the challenges of being, and working with, others in an environment less constrained than the classroom.

There were many challenges along the way, but as the work of the achievement centre developed more pupils returned to classroom learning. A key part of this process was a focus on wellbeing.

The staff developed an understanding that pupils could not attain before they had an experience of wellbeing, of trusting relationships and a sense of mastery they were not yet able to experience in the classroom.

With thanks to Claire Reid, our colleague at Barnardo’s who is the Project Coordinator for the B – Wild Project in Scotland (a partnership between Barnardo’s and the Field Studies Council which focuses on connecting children and their families to nature, recognising benefits of nature on mental health and wellbeing).

Other wonderful initiatives:

The Nature Friendly Schools Project is working with some of the country’s poorest primary school aged children at this crucial time when the pandemic has had a disproportionate impact on disadvantaged children, especially in relation to access to green spaces.

It is a partnership between The Royal Society of Wildlife Trusts and Groundwork, the Field Studies Council, the Sensory Trust, Young Minds and Wildlife Trusts.

It works in the following way:

‘Through expert training, Nature Friendly Schools empowers teachers to deliver outdoor classes independently, helping them overcome barriers that made it challenging to head out into nature before. This includes making the most of limited outside space, managing behaviour outdoors, and helping teachers measure learning outside of a conventional classroom. Nature Friendly Schools also rewilds school grounds, creating outdoor classrooms and greener, more natural spaces around school building.’

Look out for any calls for expressions of interest.

In the meantime, they have a range of online resources


Outdoor Classroom Day is a global movement to make time outdoors part of every child’s day. On two days of action each year, teachers take children outdoors to play and learn. All year round, the Outdoor Classroom Day community campaigns for more time outdoors every day:

Learning through Landscapes - charity specialising in outdoor learning and play in education. They offer a range of services, resources and projects.

The Council for Leaning Outside the Classroom is a registered charity existing to champion learning outside the classroom (LOtC). They have a new mentoring programme starting in September.

Information and Reports:

Article written by Marie Thomas


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