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Outdoor Learning and Advanced Problem-Solving

By Leslie Morrison, CTD Summer Leapfrog Coordinator

“There is no such thing as bad weather—only inappropriate clothing.”

                                    -Sir Ranulph Fiennes and Alfred Wainwright

School curriculum and daily lessons are typically anchored in rooms with walls, and play is often associated with the outdoors. And yet just the words “outdoor learning” seem to open new and exciting possibilities for students. Outdoor learning offers challenging problem-solving opportunities as well as a chance for students to learn from failures and rediscover their strengths.

Outdoor Learning and Advanced Problem-Solving

How might an outdoor classroom enhance learning for younger students? In outdoor learning environments, students can experience hands-on opportunities for learning, and engage in authentic problem-solving in ways that could not be experienced with the same depth in an indoor classroom. For example, in one study, a small group of children wanted to create a rope swing in an outdoor area. The teacher provided the rope and modeled how to tie knots, and then the students took charge at that point. The students figured out that there were important steps they needed to take to create a functioning swing, from deciding that a large stick would be used for the seat to measuring out the length of the rope. This was a collaborative, higher-order problem-solving activity that was also highly motivating for students. Additionally, rich conversations developed as they worked towards completion of their unique swing.

Mistakes and Persistence

Outdoor learning experiences allow students of all ages to experience risk and adventure at a developmentally appropriate pace. Risk-taking is critical to advancing children’s learning. But in some instances, and often for gifted and talented children, students can become risk-averse. Because some GT students are perfectionists, they may not want to risk failure in unfamiliar tasks. Their motivation can waver, and they may not want to try, or try more than once. When students “play it safe” in their learning, their creativity and higher-order problem-solving can be stifled, leaving messier but fruitful learning experiences to the side.

With outdoor learning, such as a wilderness challenge, students work collaboratively on projects. They can quickly identify mistakes and make modifications, since the learning experiences are so immediate and concrete. Students often draw on skills that they likely don’t exhibit in a traditional classroom, which builds confidence and excitement for learning. Outdoor learning offers students a new way of discovering how failures can lead to new understandings. They can figure out how to make a lean-to shelter that doesn’t fall down, or propose new ways to make a working solar oven, or just keep trying until they make a swing that actually works. 

This summer, CTD is offering a class on outdoor learning for grades 2-3. In Wilderness Challenge, students will hone survival skills while putting STEM concepts into practice. These immediate, concrete learning experiences make math and science a lot of fun!



Forest Schools: Fires, Trees, and Mud Pies

Self-esteem and Successful Interaction as Part of the Forest School Project

The Effect of Environment-Based Education on Students’ Achievement Motivation

Preschool without Walls

Back to School, Back Outdoors: Executive Summary

5 Benefits of Outdoor Education

Early Childhood Education Takes to the Outdoors

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