Inclusivity: Inside & Outside (Outdoor Learning)

There’s a reason why they call it the “great outdoors.” Going outside is the best part of many people’s day. A chance to enjoy the sun, interact with the world around them, and just take a chance to breathe can be the best part of someone’s day. It’s also scientifically proven to improve a range of mental, physical and cognitive health outcomes

For students, outdoor learning is no different. However, students stand to benefit from more than just walking in the sunshine. Nature is a classroom, and play is learning. The outdoors are a chance for all students to learn more about each other and the world around them, regardless of who they are or where they come from.

“Inclusivity has such exciting momentum to it and is seeing different professionals work together, like educators, the health industry, and different design fields,” says SHP senior landscaping architect Michael Haug. “Inclusivity or designing spaces that serve the most people regardless of age and neurodivergence sensory needs, has seen a lot of progress in outdoor spaces.”

Given his role at SHP, it’s no surprise that Michael contends the most enriching classrooms aren’t always confined to four walls. Step outside the traditional and dive into the transformative world of outdoor learning with Michael as he explains the benefits of learning outside and how simple it can be to create those spaces.

Let’s Take This Show On The (Dirt) Road

You don’t have to hop on Ms. Frizzle’s magic school bus to go somewhere engaging to learn. For many students, one of the best spaces to learn is right outside the classroom windows. 

“For students, two of the greatest benefits of outdoor classrooms learning about nature through their own experimentation and becoming comfortable making connections to nature and other people,” says Michael. “This is especially true in early childhood development, as young children learn by experiencing the world around them.”

For students who are neurodivergent and struggle to focus, being outside periodically throughout the day has proven to reduce attention deficit symptoms and relax the students considerably. Students who learn in outdoor classrooms are also more likely to have higher standardized test scores and grade point averages. 

But the benefits of an outdoor classroom are not just based on performance—they also include unique teaching opportunities. For example, if the students are outside for a science class and they see a dragonfly go past, the science teacher can use that in-the-moment example to explain why the design of windsurfing sails is similar to insect wings. The same dragonfly, or a flower also seen outside, could become the inspiration for a drawing in art class. 

The opportunities for learning in an outdoor classroom are endless and, more importantly, creates a more accessible learning environment.  

Recess–It’s Everyone’s Favorite

If you asked a group of students what their favorite part of the school day is, there’s a good chance that a lot of them would say “recess.” And who can blame them? A chance to run around with their friends, swing as high as they can on the swing set, and prove that they are the four-square champion of that recess block.

These are the kinds of experiences that every student deserves to have, regardless of their ability. That’s why it’s important to select playground equipment that is not only accessible but also creates interaction between all children.

One company that is designing playground equipment with this in mind is the recreational equipment company Miracle Recreation. Much of their equipment includes ramps and low-to-the-ground structures so that students with limited mobility can enjoy the equipment piece. They also design equipment structures specifically for kids on the autism spectrum or with sensory integration disorders. The designs are made to be more integrated so that a person with sensory needs can play with children who may not have sensory needs. 

When you choose playground equipment with ramps or built-in calm-down spaces, the benefits run deeper than giving every student 50 minutes of fun in their day. You are also allowing them to interact with one another on an equal footing. 

Michael says, “If children are in spaces where they’re able to interact with other kids that are different from them and they’re choosing to connect with each other, then they will choose to take care of other people later.”

The Wi-Fi Human Connection

Life is all about the connections you make. No, not the Wi-Fi connection your phone makes every time you enter a room: the real connections you make with the space around you and the people you’re with. 

These connections are some of the most important in our lives, and students deserve the same. 

One way to promote the connection between students and the natural world is to give them real elements to touch: real sand, real wood, and real rocks, for instance. It’s as simple as buying a boulder. A boulder can serve as a bench, a table, or even a perch. This natural element is not only more comfortable for all students than the typical metal bench, it also helps children become more acclimated to the natural world around them. 

Courtyards are another easy way to promote this connection, especially for schools that may not have an expansive natural environment around their facilities. By creating a courtyard and giving children the tools to function in the natural world around them, you’re helping them do more than create a connection with nature – you’re helping them create a connection with each other. 

Students with disabilities can struggle with feeling like they’re isolated from their peers, a condition that has only worsened in the age of digital media-driven connection. Natural play and being outdoors encourage children to interact and bond with one another rather than fostering those connections on digital media. 

Getting students into the natural world doesn’t just help them learn better; it also helps teach them one of the most important lessons life has to offer: empathy. 

The Great Outdoors Are, Well, Great

Regardless of where a student is from or what they experience in life, one thing is clear: the outdoors has undeniable long-term and short-term positive impacts. 

“If children are able to interact with nature, then they’re less afraid of it,” Michael concludes. “If they are comfortable with nature, then they will choose to form a relationship with it and will more likely choose to be stewards of our natural world in the future.”

Creating an inclusive environment for all students sometimes means expanding the space rather than limiting it. No space is more expansive or offers more opportunity for success and growth than the truly great outdoors.