How Outdoor Play Helps Students Be Healthy and Ready to Learn

January 29, 2015

Research supports the idea that outdoor play helps students be healthy and ready to learn.

Last fall, in partnership with Openlands, our Space to Grow program came to life with the transformation of four Chicago schoolyards into dynamic spaces for outdoor learning, play and engagement with nature. Our hope for these schoolyards is to see students and community members truly enjoying the outdoors — and in the process, taking advantage of the unique learning opportunities and advantages offered up by Mother Nature herself.

At Healthy Schools Campaign, we firmly believe — and research clearly supports — that physical activity and healthy nutrition lead to classroom success. Space to Grow schoolyards are designed to be an extension of the school learning environment. Schoolyard elements include edible gardens to help students — along with community members — learn about the food they eat, playground equipment to promote fun and exercise, as well as signage that explains the underlying green infrastructure and water management features.

The benefits of outdoor learning and exploration were recently supported by a study in the journal of Social Science & Medicine that evaluated children’s attitudes toward outdoor play. The study addressed the notion that while engagement with nature is associated with good mental and physical health, there is growing concern that children today spend less and less time playing, learning and exploring outdoors, and their health is suffering as a consequence.

The report polled a group of elementary school students in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, who were part of the Urban Ecology Center’s Neighborhood Environmental Education Program. This program transforms the outdoor learning experience from “just another field trip” into an outdoor classroom where the same science concepts taught in class are reinforced with hands-on outdoor activities throughout the year. This research was then compared to a baseline group of students from the same part of Milwaukee who had not participated in the program.

The resulting research fully supports the goals of Space to Grow. Students reported that being in nature was relaxing, healthy and fun. They also said being in nature calms them and helps them think more clearly. Unstructured play opportunities also gave students a sense of freedom to make up their own games and explore new places.

Additionally, the UEC research results suggested that once children are exposed to outdoor play, they, along with their families, are more likely to return independently to continue their exploration of the outdoors.

Through Space to Grow, we are evaluating how schools and communities are using their new schoolyards, as well as the potential benefits that the schoolyards are having on students and community members. Initial feedback from the four pilot schoolyards has been overwhelmingly positive. School administrators have told us that, more than ever, students want to spend time in their schoolyards, regardless of the weather. And parents and community members have told us that the community has taken a renewed ownership of the school grounds, by exercising in the schoolyards, sitting and relaxing in the park with neighbors and friends, and keeping watch over the outdoor spaces.

In 2015, we’re looking forward to rolling out six more Space to Grow schoolyards. But more importantly, we’re looking forward to working with the schools and communities to help create healthier students through the benefits of the great outdoors.