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Research in the US has found learning in nature has a significant positive impact on student engagement during subsequent lessons indoors.

In one positive after-effect back in the classroom, educators were able to teach for almost twice as long without having to pause and redirect students’ attention to the task at hand.

Writing in the journal Frontiers in Psychology, the researchers say “it appears that, far from leaving students too keyed up to concentrate afterward, lessons in nature may actually leave students more able to engage in the next lesson, even as students are also learning the material at hand”. They refer to this process as ‘refuelling in flight’.

Professor Ming Kuo and Assistant Professor Matthew Browning, of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, and Adjunct Professor Milbert Penner ran a series of mini-experiments with students in two Grade 3 classes (nine and 10-year-olds) and their two experienced teachers, at a school in the Midwest. They matched pairs of 40 minute lessons – one in a small grassy area 200 metres from the school, and the other in a classroom with windows – across 10 topics and 10 weeks. The lessons were matched by teacher, students, class size, topic, teaching style, week of the semester and time of day.

The subsequent 20 minute observation took place in the teacher’s usual classroom and followed a water and bathroom break for the students. The researchers carried out several measures of classroom engagement, including the number of ‘redirects’ across the 20 minutes - each time the teacher had to stop their instruction to redirect or correct student behaviour (for example, asking them to sit down or reminding them that they need to be working).

“We found higher levels of classroom engagement after lessons in nature than after carefully matched classroom-based counterparts; these differences could not be explained by differences in teacher, instructional approach, class (students, classroom, and class size), time of year or time of day, nor the order of the indoor and outdoor lessons on a given topic,” the researchers write.

“It would seem that lessons in nature boost subsequent classroom engagement, and boost it a great deal; after a lesson in nature, teachers were able to teach for almost twice as long (6.5 minutes compared to 3.5 minutes) without having to interrupt instruction to redirect students’ attention. This nature advantage persisted across 10 different weeks and lesson topics, and held not only for a teacher with positive expectations for nature-based lessons but also for a teacher who anticipated negative effects of such lessons.”

The researchers recommend teachers try at least two or three lessons in nature before assessing their impact and value.

References
Kuo, M., Browning, M., & Penner, M. L. (2018). Do Lessons in Nature Boost Subsequent Classroom Engagement? Refueling Students in Flight. Frontiers in Psychology. 8:2253. doi:10.3389/fpsyg.2017.02253

This is an edited version of an article that first appeared in Teacher magazine and has been reproduced with the permission of the Australian Council for Educational Research. To read the full article and to read more articles like this visit www.teachermagazine.com.au.