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Do Better in School

Many of the studies that have looked at the connection between time spent in nature and performance in school. However, one of the most important functions nature plays in a child's development happens before a child enters into formal education. Executive functions such as following directions, working cooperatively and working through problems are all improved when a child spends time outdoors.

Evidence offers causal support for nature’s impact on learning, development and environmental stewardship

This review of the literature summarizes what is currently known about the impact of experiences with nature on academic learning. Its aim was to explore a possible cause-and-effect relationship between nature and learning. While hundreds of studies show a positive link between nature engagement and academic learning, the evidence provided by individual studies tends to be based on weak research designs. Collectively, however, a different story emerges. This review tells that story.

The question, “do nature experiences promote learning and child development?” framed the review. Evidence from a wide array of peer-reviewed scientific journals was examined, with careful attention to the difference between evidence for cause-and-effect relationships and evidence for associations. Findings from this critical review indicates that “experiences with nature do promote children’s academic learning and seem to promote children’s development as persons and as environmental stewards.” The academic learning outcomes include: (a) increased retention of subject matter; (b) higher standardized scores; (c) better grades; (d) better math, reading and writing skills; and (e) higher graduation rates. Personal development outcomes include: (a) better leadership skills; (b) better communication skills; (c) more resilience; (d) better critical thinking and problem solving; and (e) better spatial skills. Positive stewardship outcomes include stronger connection to nature, stronger environmental values, and more pro-environmental behaviors.

The findings of this review of the literature “reveals an evidence base stronger, deeper, and broader” than what a more cursory examination might suggest. It shows that an impressive body of research has accrued and that converging lines of evidence paint a convincing picture of a cause-and-effect relationship between nature and learning. These findings indicate that “it is time to take nature seriously as a resource for learning – particularly for students not effectively reached by traditional instruction.”

  • Kuo, Ming, Michael Barnes, and Catherine Jordan. 2019. “Do Experiences With Nature Promote Learning? Converging Evidence of a Cause-and-Effect Relationship.” Frontiers in Psychology 10. https://doi.org/10.3389/fpsyg.2019.00305.

Children who take part in school gardening projects improve in scientific learning more than those who do not, and have healthier eating habits

A systematic literature review was conducted on research related to the benefits of time in nature for children under twelve years old. Inclusion criteria of the review included peer-reviewed research published in English between 1990 and 2011 that had a robust methodology and focused on children’s experiences in nearby nature. These criteria yielded 61 studies that were categorized based on the specific benefits that were addressed in the research. The review identified benefits for children related to time in nature in the general areas of health, well-being, cognitive processes, social skills, emotional/behavior issues, and ethics/attitude towards the natural world. The studies were grouped together by specific benefit to develop an overall assessment of the extent to which evidence supports the existence of each benefit.

Overall, the literature review supports the view that spending time in nature is an important childhood experience that promotes their healthy development, well-being and positive attitudes towards the natural world. The review helps to shed particular light on the relationship between benefits and the way in which children engage with the natural environment, highlighting “the value of more playful engagement styles such as free play, exploration, leisure and child initiated learning.” An overall theme was that more playful engagement with nature was associated with health benefits as well as positive environmental attitudes and less playful approaches, such as school gardening projects and field trips, yielded more educational benefits. This insight into the importance of children’s playful engagement with the natural world is an important contribution to the literature and provides support for “initiatives that allow for more open-ended, child-directed and playful experiences in natural environments.”

  • Gill, Tim. 2014. “The Benefits of Children’s Engagement with Nature: A Systematic Literature Review.” Children, Youth and Environments 24 (2): 10–34. https://doi.org/10.7721/chilyoutenvi.24.2.0010.

Nature-Smart Kids Get Higher Test Scores

The American Institutes for Research® conducted a study, submitted to the California Department of Education, of the impact of week long residential outdoor education programs. The focus was on at-risk youth, 56% of whom reported never having spent time in a natural setting. Comparing the impact on students who experienced the outdoor education program versus those in a control group who had not had the outdoor learning experience, results were statistically significant. Major findings were: 27% increase in measured mastery of science concepts; enhanced cooperation and conflict resolution skills; gains in self-esteem; gains in positive environmental behavior; and gains in problem-solving, motivation to learn, and classroom behavior.(Original research)

Environmental Education

School Performance: Offering environmental education programs in school improves standardized test scores. The present research investigated the impact of environmental education (EE) programs on student achievement in math, reading, and writing by comparing student performances on two standardized tests for environmental education schools and schools with traditional curriculum.

Study Proves Outdoor Science Education Improves Test Scores

Dogwood Canyon Audubon Center and the Cedar Hill ISD in Texas partnered on a study with 500 5th grade students to determine the impact of the Center’s customized Eco Investigations lessons on student academic performance including STAAR testing results. This study demonstrates that Dogwood Canyon’s customized outdoor program approach delivers true academic results. This study was made possible by a generous donation from Bruce and Billie Ballengee.

Students go on field trips every week in North Texas. Dogwood Canyon Audubon Center wanted to see just how well their program impacted student achievement. Based on benchmark test results, Dogwood Canyon adjusted its standard Eco Investigations program to address areas where students need to improve in science. The students who participated outperformed nonparticipants by 20% or more on six questions. Eco Investigations provided specific hands on powerful learning experiences on food chains and food webs demonstrating remarkable success for the students on the related STAAR test questions. Dogwood Canyon’s unique approach to a customized outdoor academic experience demonstrated true academic results. In Texas, no study on outdoor science programming has ever been linked to state testing improvement.