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Outdoor Learning and Advanced Problem-Solving

By Leslie Morrison, CTD Summer Leapfrog Coordinator, 
Revised by Adam Schalke, CTD Program Assistant


“It seems to me that we all look at nature too much, and live with her too little.” 
 -Oscar Wilde 

CTD will be keeping the majority of its summer programs online this summer in the interest of the health and safety of its families, educators, and staff. However, we do not expect our students to spend their entire summer indoors in front of a device. In fact, the courses in CTD’s summer programs are activity-based, and many embrace the unique benefits of outdoor learning. Learning in an outdoor environment, whether that’s a student’s backyard, a park, or some other natural space, has the potential to stimulate creative thinking, develop problem-solving skills, and teach students to adapt and learn from their mistakes more effectively.  

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. In a time of distance learning, this could be accomplished with a student and their parent, or with a peer under certain circumstances meant to better ensure safety. 

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 gifted 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. Students 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.  

CTD is happy to offer an array of courses this summer that either feature or are greatly enhanced by outdoor learning. Some of our outdoor online learning offerings include: 

  

RESOURCES 

Forest Schools: Fires, Trees, and Mud Pies 

https://www.theguardian.com/education/2014/dec/09/the-school-in-the-woods-outdoor-education-modern-britain 

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

http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/j.0268-2141.2004.00337.x/epdf 

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

http://www.seer.org/pages/research/AthmanandMonroeJIR2004.pdf 

Preschool without Walls 

http://www.nytimes.com/2015/12/31/fashion/outdoor-preschool-in-nature.html 

Back to School, Back Outdoors: Executive Summary 

https://www.nwf.org/pdf/Be%20Out%20There/Back%20to%20School%20full%20report.pdf 

5 Benefits of Outdoor Education 

https://www.edutopia.org/blog/5-benefits-of-outdoor-education-michael-becker 

Early Childhood Education Takes to the Outdoors 

https://www.edutopia.org/early-childhood-outdoor-education-waldkindergarten 

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