The Purpose of the Outdoor Classroom

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The Purpose of the Outdoor Classroom

By Tony Pusey, Outdoor Classroom Teacher

Have you ever asked yourself, “What’s the purpose of an outdoor classroom? Isn’t it just a structured playground?” Or “Why is it important to your child’s learning here at Walnut Farm?”  More importantly, “What benefits do my son or daughter gain from being outdoors? With the vast forms of technology and my sons or daughter’s fingertips, can they not just as easily learn about nature from a click of a button?”

Let me tell you a story….

I grew up on the Eastern Shore of Maryland and spent a large part of my childhood outdoors. I can remember sitting in an old, majestic pecan tree that grew on my parent’s property, throwing the plentiful nuts into a nearby stream, watching as they drifted away until they were no longer in sight. I spent many lazy afternoons exploring the wooded area in back of my parents’ two-story farmhouse: collecting leaves, sticks, and rocks of various sizes, shapes, color, and texture. Occasionally, I found a deer antler. I devoted my early mornings and late afternoons to taking care of a flock of chickens that I raised. I sold farm fresh eggs, a dollar a dozen. During the 70’s and 80’s; I-phones, personal laptop computers, X-box, and a barrage of endless video games had not yet made their way to the consumer; my entertainment was the great outdoors! I still, to this day, can hear my mother tell my sister and me, “Don’t come back into the house until the pole light in the back yard comes on and don’t slam (BAM!) the wooden screen door!” Children my age enjoyed a kind of free, natural play.

Children today often do not share in these experiences. Today’s children spend less and less time outdoors, and it’s taking a toll on their health and well-being.

Within the space of a few decades, the way children understand and experience nature have fundamentally changed. Today, children are often aware of the global threats to the environment, but their personal physical contact and their closeness with nature is diminishing. This is precisely the opposite of how it was when I was a child. As a little boy, I was unaware that the woods that I enjoyed exploring was somehow connected to environmental issues like those of today. Acid rain? I had no clue of what it was or its importance to the environment. Holes in the ozone layer? The only holes that I was aware of when I was young were the ones that I would put in my socks from not wearing shoes outdoors. One thing is for certain– I knew my woods. I knew the fields that surrounded our farmhouse and the big, red barn where I housed my chickens. I knew every twist and turn in the creek and every pothole in our long and dusty driveway. I wandered those woods even when I slept, even in my dreams.

A child today can most likely tell you about the Grand Canyon-but not about the last time he or she took a walk in the woods in solitude or walk barefoot through a patch of green grass, feeling every blade of grass tickle his or her toes. A child today most likely cannot tell you the last time she laid down in a meadow and watched the clouds float by as she used her imagination to turn those same clouds into something meaningful. Research has shown that children do better physically and emotionally when they are in green spaces, benefiting from their positive frame of mind, less stress, and a decrease in self-stimulants.

Richard Louv, co-founder and chairman of the Children & Nature Network and author of Last Child in the Woods, The Nature Principle, and most recently, Vitamin N:500 ways to Enrich the Health & Happiness of Your Family & Community warns about the effects for the environment if we do not bring children’s awareness of their relationship to nature. Nature-deficit disorder is not a medically diagnosed illness, but it is a deception to the human cost of being separated from the outdoors: decrease use of our senses, attention disorders, rise in physical and emotional sicknesses, obesity among adults and children, lack of Vitamin D, and other illnesses.

“According to a 2008 Recreation Participation Report, released in January 2009, children ages 6 to 17 had a decline in outdoor activities by more than 11%. That’s a stark contrast to adults. The same report noted that adult participation in outdoor activities had slightly increased. Most affected were children ages 6-12 years old but as it has been noted before, the decline in children participation in outdoor activity is nothing new.

Consider, too, the decision by the publisher of the Oxford Junior Dictionary to replace dozens of nature-related words like “beaver” and “dandelion” with “blog” and “MP3 player. As a noted wildlife artist and conservationist Robert Bateman observed, “If you can’t name things, how can you have love for them? And if you don’t love them, then you’re not going to care a hoot about protecting them or voting for issues that would protect them.” (Louv, R. (2009, January 28). “No More Nature-Deficit Disorder.” Retrieved from http://

This just tells us the state of society that we are in when technology undermines nature. The shift in our relationship to the natural world is startling. For the current generation, nature is more of an idea than reality. More and more often, nature is something to view on television, something to purchase, something to wear or to merely ignore. Recently, I watched a television ad depicting a four-wheel-drive SUV racing along a breathtaking mountain stream- while in the backseat, two children watched a movie on a flip-down video screen, unknowingly to the landscape and water just on the other side of their windows. Yes, the bond is broken between the young and the natural world, yet we keep on letting it happen.

Richard Louv once said, “The more high-tech our lives become, the more we need nature.” Whether one believes in nature-deficit disorder or not, the fact remains that children today spend more time in front of a screen than any other period in history. It’s time that we as parents quit allowing screen time, no matter how convenient it is, to be a babysitter for our children. Take your child outdoors and admire the beauty that is all around. Explore the wonders that mother nature holds. It’s time that educators take the classroom outdoors instead of bringing the outdoors in.

Children can’t learn about nature from the click of a button; it comes from planting a seedling in the warm earth, turning over a stone in the garden to discover a family of pill bugs, or following a distant call into the woods to discover a native bird perched at the top of a cedar tree.  I am hopeful that I have answered some of the questions posed at the beginning of this article: the outdoor classroom is used and loved by all of the children in the primary and elementary classrooms at Walnut Farm. It is a place where children can viscerally experience and become a part of nature; the joys and pleasures I’ve written about from my own childhood may be experienced daily by our students in this special place.