• Mon. Oct 11th, 2021

When nature is nourished: structured learning outdoors

ByMarcia F. Taylor

Sep 15, 2021

Nature can be a stimulating environment for learning – this article examines the benefits of the great outdoors for children on the spectrum.

Our modern age offers extraordinary technological advances that help humanity, but we are paying a price in some areas, including less time spent outdoors in nature. Children today spend more time indoors, detached from the natural world than any other generation. A 2018 study by the National Trust indicates that children spend less than half the time playing outside compared to their parents.

But humans are wired to be on the outside. Nature is in our nature. The fresh air, the singing of birds, the sunlight dancing through the leaves, the scent of the earth, the serenity of a forest path and the beauty of a flower garden help us to relax, to think more. clearly and to develop a connection with something immense and timeless.

The experience of the great outdoors enhances and develops creativity, imagination, concentration, observation skills and a sense of wonder. A computer screen showing the image of a butterfly, for example, does not evoke the same feeling of awe, curiosity and imagination as watching a butterfly flutter in a garden.

Indeed, nature is beneficial for all of us, including children with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD).

Outdoor learning in the Forest School tradition

The pandemic has rekindled our interest in spending more time outdoors, including outdoor learning and play for our children. However, outdoor learning is not a new concept.

Understanding the benefits of structured exploration and sustained risk-taking, the founders of Forest School started an outdoor school movement in Sweden in the 1950s. Forest School incorporates elements of planning, observation , adaptation and revision in the learning experience through regular and programmed sessions in a wooded or natural environment, rain or shine.

Educators and parents alike appreciate the opportunities for holistic growth through outdoor play and learning, and the concept of the forestry school has grown in popularity since its inception.

Today, we continue to recognize the positive influence of its principles on all children for individual growth, self-confidence and well-being.

Nature benefits children with ASD

At first, the combination of Forest School outdoor learning and autism seems incongruous. How can all of these natural sensory inputs benefit children with autism, especially those with hypersensitivities involving sight, sound, smell, touch, and balance? The Forest School approach, which strikes a balance between freedom and structure, offers another way of conceptualizing, understanding, organizing and feeling the sensory data of the environment and the body.

Research supports the benefits of outdoor learning and play for children with ASD, including a 2019 report published in an Elsevier Health & Place Journal.

Benefits of outdoor learning for children with autism

  1. Sensory motor

Children experience increased sensory engagement in nature. It provides an opportunity to make discoveries and learn new things while being active and using fine and gross motor skills, helping to improve sensory integration

  1. Social / emotional

Nature is a natural stress reducer that helps instill positive feelings. Being outdoors also removes some of their typical stressors in life from autistic children. The Health & Place report notes that children with autism laughed and smiled more when they were in nature, finding opportunities to become happy and relaxed.

  1. Physical

Physical activity can improve a child’s overall life, and being outside in nature is a great way to stay active. Walking, reaching and moving in nature on different surfaces offers new ways to improve overall fitness, health, agility, coordination and balance.

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Each child is unique

While outdoor learning encourages cooperative play and interaction between participants in an intimate small group, it also gives children the opportunity to find solitary activities and intimacy with fewer social expectations. Some children with ASD benefit from clearly defined and well-constructed activities. For others, activities must complement their inner sense of time and order.

Experiences in the wild at a forestry school or similar program can meet both needs. Nature is constantly changing, but there are recognizable patterns in time, seasons, plants and animals. Logs and leaves, roots and bark, flowers, birds and animals awaken all the senses and encourage hands-on activities that involve coordination, observation and spatial awareness.

At the same time, it is essential to be aware of the effects on each child and to ensure that there are opportunities to withdraw and be silent for those who need space.

Inspiring learning process, huge benefits

Spending time outdoors provides unique and beneficial experiences that cannot be replicated in the classroom. Parents appreciate the short-term benefits that outdoor learning offers their children, but there is some evidence that it also enhances and inspires overall learning.

Researcher Ramóna Nádasdy, in her interviews with teachers in Sweden, found that spending time outdoors (drawing inspiration from nature as part of their overall learning experience) better prepared children to learn. in class.

Observing trees on a walk, for example, can encourage the use of language and numeracy. Tree names can inspire songs and stories, as well as alphabet and counting games. Older children may enjoy the application of mathematics or the study of the scientific aspects of nature.

However, providing an inspiring child-centered learning process is at the heart of a Forest School approach. Curiosity and exploration are encouraged, and activities focus on the social and emotional aspects of learning rather than on acquiring academic knowledge. The forest or the garden is the school, providing children with opportunities to share, experience and become more expansive beings.

Beyond the forest

Not everyone has access to nearby forests, but green spaces, such as parks and gardens, are used in programs that take the forestry school approach. In fact, therapeutic gardens and gardening have become an essential component of education and outdoor activities for children with ASD and other disorders, with tangible results.

Photography is also a skill that many children enjoy developing through their observations of the natural world. It is an activity that gives children who are less mobile than others, especially those who use wheelchairs, the opportunity to be creative.

In the words of Wonderschool, it’s about exploring the world in a safe and magical way.

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