Most all of the school and district leaders I’ve spoken with over the years say that they appreciate dedicated areas for outdoor learning and see value in them. However, when it comes time to actually invest in such spaces, I frequently hear the same objection: “I’m concerned about the cost of maintenance.”
While I believe such costs are returned — many times over! — by the one-of-a-kind benefits made possible by outdoor learning spaces, there is one way to dramatically reduce the cost of maintaining them. How’s that? By having your students maintain and manage these areas (under the watchful eyes of their teachers, of course). Not only does this make financial sense, it makes good educational sense too. Here’s why.
Caring for something bigger than oneself
Caring for something other than yourself and connecting with the larger world beyond yourself is, of course, vital to healthy human development. When students are asked to care for the environment, it helps underscore that there are important matters beyond them. It also encourages them to take ownership of their little piece of nature, an important step in encouraging environmental stewardship. As natural historian David Attenborough put it so well: “No one will protect what they don’t care about and no one will care about what they don’t experience.”
Welcoming new responsibilities
While we adults often long for less responsibilities, children are often eager to take on more. So helping to care for a patch of land is likely to be embraced by most kids. Dr. Eugene Beresin expressed this notion well in a Psychology Today blog post:
“All children have the desire to be competent, effective, and to master tasks they previously could not accomplish,” she said. “The acquisition and demonstration of new skills help foster positive self-esteem. When they succeed in mastering more responsibilities, they not only feel that they can do what adults or older siblings do but earn respect and validation for their competence.”
Enjoying lessons across the entire curriculum
Caring for an outdoor learning space opens up opportunities to teach lessons connected to virtually every subject. There’s certainly plenty of science to be explored: biology, botany, weather and more. If a small vegetable garden is part of your outdoor space, the kids can also learn about nutrition and its impact on health. Learning the names of plants and soil components can enhance literacy and verbal skills. If you’ll pardon the pun, when it comes to outdoor learning areas and things to be learned, the sky’s the limit.
Stimulating all the senses
Outdoor learning spaces engage all the senses, something that science tells us is key to brain development. When students care for these spaces, they and their senses are engaged at an even deeper level as they plant seeds, clean mulch, rake leaves and the like. What’s more is that this sensory stimulation is happening in a manner different from indoor instruction, online learning or play. They can touch, smell, hear, smell and, if you have garden, even taste. (By the way, you’ll find a deeper dive into outdoor learning and the senses in this post.)
Working those young muscles
Caring for an outdoor space requires both gross and fine motor skills, from lugging watering cans to pinching and pulling tiny weeds. Caring for an outdoor space is, of course, active time, something most kids simply aren’t getting enough of in today’s device-laden world. (As an aside, it may shock you to learn that many kids are spending less time outdoors than prisoners in maximum security prisons! Check out this video.)
Getting good and dirty for good reasons
If you’re worried about kids getting their hands dirty, don’t be. Studies have shown that when children get to dig in the dirt it improves their moods and lessens anxiety. Jack Gilbert, a research scientist from the University of Chicago, literally co-wrote the book on it. As NPR reported:
“Gilbert has found that when kids are exposed to germs through dirt — from the garden to the kitchen floor — their immune systems kick into gear and become more robust, which is beneficial to a growing body. Further, Gilbert says that when kids get exposed to different kinds of germs it may actually prevent or decrease the risk of developing some allergies and even asthma, a respiratory condition that affects 6 million American kids under the age of 18.”
While I believe — with ample research to back me up — that outdoor learning spaces are invaluable, for those worried about the cost of maintaining such areas, the answer may lie in turning to your very own cadre of mini-caretakers eager to be in the sunshine.