Opt Outside: OT’s Role in Aiding Outdoor Learning for Fall 2020
It’s no secret that school administrators, educators, staff, curriculum designers, parents, and children are entering this school year with casted doubts and uncertainty. The challenges required from the quick transitions to online learning in the Spring of 2020 are only compounded by the new demands for adapting some type of in-person school environments to roll out the Fall 2020 school year. These challenges can leave the many staff involved with these decisions searching for strategies to promote learning in the most optimal school environments possible.
School-Based OT Roles
Occupation therapy practitioners have specific knowledge and expertise to increase participation in school routines throughout the day (American Occupational Therapy Association [AOTA], 2016). Now more than ever OTs can work within these roles to best support classroom participation, as these new transitions demand school-wide and classroom adaptations. Specific aspects of OT interventions in school settings include:
Conducting activity and environmental analysis and making recommendations to improve the fit for greater access, progress, and participation
Reducing barriers that limit student participation within the school environment
Helping to plan relevant instructional activities for ongoing implementation
(AOTA, 2016) With the understanding of these roles, the value in utilizing occupational therapy practitioners to aid in addressing school-wide environmental changes becomes apparent. Schools are being asked to adapt their environments like never before with new demands for social distancing, frequent sanitizing protocols, and limited common use items and shared spaces. The current array of hurdles facing schools reopening in Fall 2020 prompts a discussion of how school-based OTs can be involved. My background, focus, and understanding of occupational therapy principles prompt me to vie for as much outdoor learning in schools as possible.
There is no shortage of literature and research examining the positive youth development that occurs through time spent outdoors (see: Research & Literature). This includes books, research studies, and personal accounts by many individuals who have found ways to quantify the benefits of the outdoors, particularly on youth, in domains such as physical, cognitive, social-emotional, and spiritual development. I too, as a former educator, have frequently utilized the outdoors to supplement my lessons, support classroom participation, and engage my students in a meaningful and purposeful way. When you consider this knowledge and the current need to maintain social distance, ensure clean airspace, and limit contact within a classroom- the outdoors becomes a more than viable consideration. Let’s take a deeper look at the research specifically concerning outdoor learning.
Research on the benefits of outdoor learning
A synthesis of research on outdoor education was completed by LEAF, Wisconsin’s K-12 Forestry Education Program. Their findings point to several studies that link the following connections between education and the outdoors:
School performance increases when children learn outdoors
Learning outdoors is healthy
Learning outdoors supports child development
Teaching and learning outdoors is fun
Learning outdoors helps develop a sense of place and civic attitudes and behaviors
Outdoor education engages families and the community
Click here for the full summary of their findings, and the associated research studies.
Further insight into outdoor learning is provided by interviews and testimonies from educators and students in the UK who have engaged in outdoor learning opportunities. Students often reported a sense of freedom when learning in the outdoors, while teachers remarked on the way children respected the clear rules and boundaries of the outdoor learning environments. Findings from this pursuit indicate that even just an hour or two of outdoor learning every week engages children, improves their well-being, and increases teachers’ job satisfaction (Marchant, et al., 2020).
A 2018 study of elementary-aged students indicated that children who received outdoor lessons were significantly more engaged in their next lesson “on all measures” compared to when receiving lessons indoors. These findings remained true for different teachers, different times of the day, and different times of the year. Previous studies indicate similar benefits such as increased student interest in subjects, increased intrinsic motivation to learn, and better ability to retain information (Suttie, 2018).
Not to mention, children actually ENJOY being outdoors!
While the above research points to the specific benefits related to outdoor learning, the benefits of being outdoors extend far beyond those measures for youth. Angela Hanscom, OTR/L, author of Balanced and Barefoot: How Unrestricted Outdoor Play Makes for Strong, Confident, and Capable Children and founder of TimberNook describes the outdoors as “the ultimate sensory experience.” Hanscom, and many other outdoor occupational therapists, have developed a body of literature that highlights the valuable sensory-rich and motor-skill developing environments that are ever-present in the constantly changing and challenging outdoor world.
Planning for Fall 2020
This new school year demands a unique and challenging opportunity for educators and school staff to make several adaptations as they will continuously combat environmental challenges. I implore school administrations, educators, and school-based OTs to consider the value the outdoors can bring to this school year's much-needed revisions. Consider these suggestions:
Meet with administration to discuss developing an outdoor learning curriculum
Create outdoor committees with like-minded staff members to share resources, lessons, and materials
Talk to parents about outdoor learning opportunities and the positive youth development associated with these opportunities
Take traditional classroom, academic-forward lessons outside, at least once a day
Incorporate hands-on learning from the natural environment into academic lessons
Spread out, as a class, outside- multiple times a day
Encourage less-restrictive outdoor play opportunities
Develop outdoor class projects as team building activities that can be achieved with social distancing
Resources for Outdoor Learning
Educate Outside strives to support and advocate for outdoor learning. On their site you will find resources for teaching more traditionally, classroom-based, subjects such as math, literacy, and science- in the outdoors. Available are both free and premium resources targeted at ages 4-6, 7-9, and 10-12.
Green Schoolyards America has developed a National COVID-19 Outdoor Learning Initiative, which aims to create frameworks, strategies, and guidance for school districts across the country. These materials are being continuously updated, and educators are asked to join the efforts in developing these resources for ensuring a safe return to schools in a way that reduces the burden on indoor classrooms, schools, teachers, and students.
Kaplan Early Learning catalogs several materials for developing outdoor learning curriculum and lessons. Available through their site are resources, materials, and tools for supporting classroom learning objectives through outdoor play activities.
Outdoor Classroom Day, a global movement to celebrate outdoor play and learning, provides ideas, materials, and activities for inspiring outdoor learning opportunities.
There are several other resources available that may cater to more individual needs within certain schools, programs, budgets, and curriculum demands. This presents an ideal opportunity for school-based OTs to work together with educators and administration to develop these outdoor environments as it is best-suited on a per school basis.
A New Definition for Classrooms
The defined roles of school-based OTs encompasses activity and environmental structuring to best promote school performance and participation. Consideration of this, the body of research regarding outdoor learning, and the current given circumstances for school re-openings this Fall 2020 begets the urgency for school staff to support outdoor learning in any way possible. These new challenges require outside the box thinking, and one such way of thinking just may be outside the classroom learning. Perhaps these given circumstances may even help usher in a forward way of thinking that rejects traditional classroom rigidity and promotes classroom flexibility more aligned with the naturally beneficial aspects of the outdoors.
David Lewis, OTD
Creator, Access Outdoors OT
American Occupational Therapy Association [AOTA]. (2016). Occupational Therapy’s Role with School Settings [Fact Sheet]. https://www.aota.org/~/media/Corporate/Files/AboutOT/Professionals/WhatIsOT/CY/Fact-Sheets/School%20Settings%20fact%20sheet.pdf
LEAF, Wisconsin’s K-12 Forestry Education Program. (n.d.) Outdoor Education – Research Summary. https://www.uwsp.edu/cnr-ap/leaf/school-grounds/documents/outdoor%20education%20research%20for%20school%20Grounds.pdf
Marchant, E., Todd, C., & Brophy, S. (2020). Outdoor learning has huge benefits for children and teachers – so why isn’t it used in more schools? The Conversation. https://theconversation.com/outdoor-learning-has-huge-benefits-for-children-and-teachers-so-why-isnt-it-used-in-more-schools-118067
Suttie, J. (2018). The surprising benefits of teaching a class outside. Greater Good Magazine. https://greatergood.berkeley.edu/article/item/the_surprising_benefits_of_teaching_a_class_outside