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Taking curriculum learning outdoors

Written by: Victoria Cook
6 min read

Academic learning can be made experiential and practical by taking curriculum learning outdoors (Mann et al., 2022a). While learning outside the classroom can include built-environment locations (such as museums or city streetscapes), the value of learning in natural outdoor settings is most frequently championed (Waite, 2022). A variety of terms may be used to describe such learning, including outdoor learning, education outside the classroom, school-based outdoor learning, real-world learning and nature-based learning (Jucker and von Au, 2022) and nature-specific learning outside the classroom (NSLOtC) (Mann et al., 2022b). These terms may refer to learning that occurs as part of interdisciplinary programmes embedded in the curriculum, or learning linked to specific curriculum subjects. For the purposes of this paper, the tradition of learning outside the classroom is distinguished from outdoor adventure education, which has typically been viewed as distinct from academic learning (Jucker and von Au, 2022), although some overlap may occur (for example, see Mann et al., 2022b). The aim of this paper is to explore the benefits of, and barriers to, learning outdoors.

The benefits of learning outdoors

Teachers have reported positive impacts of teaching outdoors on their teaching practice, job satisfaction, health and wellbeing (Marchant et al., 2019; Rickinson et al., 2004; Waite et al., 2016). Furthermore, research suggests that outdoor learning can have a wide range of benefits for students. However, the quality of research into outdoor learning is limited. Becker et al.’s (2017) systematic review of the effects of regular classes in outdoor education settings identified only 13 studies from a pool of 7,830 that met the inclusion criteria. These studies were generally of moderate methodological quality, typified by small sample sizes, poor study design and a lack of methodological rigour. Eight studies described positive social effects, with improvements to self-esteem, self-confidence, trusting relationships and sense of belonging. Three studies reported positive effects and one reported a negative effect on students’ environmental attitudes. Seven studies reported positive effects on learning, with students benefiting from improved academic performance in several subjects and improved skills in transferring knowledge to real-life situations. 

Mann et al. (2022b) conducted a systematic review of 147 studies published between 2000 and 2020 on the benefits of NSLOtC. The authors concluded that, despite the diversity of types of nature-specific learning encompassed by the approach, NSLOtC offers opportunities for improved health and wellbeing, social engagement and curriculum-specific outcomes. While some studies found neutral or positive impacts on academic outcomes for both primary and secondary students, the review indicated significant support for the benefits of NSLOtC in relation to social and academic learning outcomes for primary-aged students in school garden and curricular outdoor learning settings. Their review similarly found that the quality of research was generally moderate.

Miller et al.’s (2021) systematic review of the outcomes of nature-based learning for primary school children focused solely on quantitative research. Twenty studies involving 3,283 primary school children were reviewed, which demonstrated varying levels of positive impacts on physical activity, educational outcomes, mental health and wellbeing, engagement and social outcomes. However, the methodological quality of these studies was again moderate, and the definition of nature-based learning was also uncertain.

Several studies have focused specifically on the impact of outdoor nature activities and wellbeing. Roberts et al. (2019) identified a range of wellbeing outcomes for children of all ages in their systematic review of 14 studies. Benefits included increased self-esteem and confidence, stress reduction, improved social relationships and resilience. The studies covered a variety of outdoor settings, from school gardens and familiar outdoor areas to wilderness experiences abroad. However, two studies reported that some participants experienced negative reactions to natural settings (Milligan and Bingley, 2007; Roe and Aspinall, 2011): Roe and Aspinall (2011) identified negative emotional reactions to a forest setting, including anger, fear, disgust and sadness, while Milligan and Bingley (2007) found that some participants experienced anxiety and uncertainty in woodland environments. They speculated that this may be due to the influence of parental anxiety in woodlands during childhood and the construction of woodlands as dangerous spaces, while other participants may be concerned about dirt and insects.

Dillon et al. (2006) have identified a range of individual student factors that need to be taken into account when designing outdoor learning experiences, including age (younger students have been found to be more enthusiastic about being outdoors, although the reason for this was not explored); prior experiences with outdoor learning; fears and phobias connected to the outdoors; preference for didactic instruction, rather than student-led investigations; physical and learning disabilities; and ethnic and cultural identity. Research with Year 9 students from three schools undertaking geography fieldwork suggests that a plethora of factors, including gender, religion, culture and personal identity, can impact upon students’ experiences of learning outdoors (Cook, 2009). For example, students may variously experience dirt as either positive or negative, a distinction that cannot simply be attributed to gender. For some, fieldwork may be empowering because it enables children to challenge established patterns of behaviour (such as keeping clean), while for others a dislike of mud may be indirectly linked to the association between cleanliness and prayer. Understanding the complexity of students’ personal experiences outdoors is an important first step to ensuring a sense of wellbeing and familiarity in a potentially unfamiliar environment (Smith, 2006).

Barriers to learning outdoors

Ray and Sonya (2018) conducted a review of the literature exploring motivators and deterrents for teacher engagement in outdoor education. Their review, which included 22 articles, concluded that the decision to engage in outdoor education is strongly influenced by teachers’ personal interests and values. However, teachers planning and implementing outdoor education experiences may also face certain logistical and institutional challenges. These include access to natural and safe environments, the administrative processes required to plan field experiences, and teacher knowledge and comfort. They discuss how the logistical tasks and paperwork involved in planning outdoor experiences, such as risk assessments that require approval from school administration, place further burdens on teachers who may already feel constrained by time and administrative demands. The financial cost of outdoor learning, including travel costs or programme facilitation, may be prohibitive to schools and families, which is especially pertinent today. Disruption to scheduled lesson plans and the need for practical help and supervision during outdoor education experiences, combined with a lack of volunteer support, are further barriers. Finally, the authors argued that a lack of perceived knowledge and experience of teaching outdoors may deter teachers from engaging in outdoor education.


Formal training in and about outdoor environments is important to ensure that all teachers develop a good understanding of effective outdoor learning strategies. Teacher pre-service and in-service education can play a central role in developing teachers’ knowledge and experience of teaching curriculum-based content outdoors (Mann et al., 2022b). Wolf et al. (2022) conducted a review of research focusing on the integration of outdoor teaching into the initial teacher training curriculum. Their review, which included 46 studies, identified emerging themes of collaboration, creativity, strategies for outdoor learning and environmental education, but concluded that more research is needed on outdoor learning from the educator’s perspective, especially in initial teacher training.

However, rather than simply more research, what is needed is more high-quality research. Improvements to methodological quality could include more randomised-controlled trials, longitudinal studies and quasi-experimental designs with a greater number of participants (Becker er al., 2017). Further high-quality research is also needed into the impact of outdoor learning on students, such as the social and academic learning outcomes for secondary-aged students in school garden and curricular outdoor learning settings.

Teachers could also consider working with their students prior to engaging in outdoor learning to understand their perceptions and previous experiences of different environments. Pre-empting students’ emotional responses to learning outdoors may support both their wellbeing and their learning, given that distractions or anxieties have the potential to overload the working memory and thereby impair learning (Perry et al., 2021).

Further reading

Lambert D, Roberts M and Waite S (2020) The National Curriculum Outdoors: A Complete Scheme of Work. London: Bloomsbury Publications.

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