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  • Eugenie Lewis

Outdoor Education for Student Well-Being

I really believe that there is something about nature – that when you are in it, it makes you realize that there are far larger things at work than yourself. This helps put problems in perspective….

- Lauren Haring, Student, UC Santa Barbara

Photo: UC Berkeley, Courtesy of Lawrence Hall of Science

In a recent report entitled Protecting Youth Mental Health, U.S. Surgeon General Dr. Vivek Murthy identified the “urgent need to address the nation’s youth mental health crisis.” In the same report, he identified factors that shape the mental health of young people. One of the important factors he addressed was access to green spaces, which contributes greatly to healthy development.

Students increasingly face personal and environmental challenges as they grow and develop. As we emerge out of the global pandemic, many students still experience academic, social and emotional struggles. They have lost loved ones, experienced financial losses, and some ties with peers and supportive adults have been impacted.

In the larger world, young people are aware of our climate crisis, racial and social injustices and divisive community dialogues. These challenges are layered on top of the basic needs of children of all ages to develop a healthy identity. With all of this, I believe we need whole school and classroom approaches that support all students with social-emotional opportunities to improve their well-being.

The Value of Nature and Outdoor Education

In the book The Last Child in the Woods, Richard Louv identifies the mental health benefits of time in nature, including balancing the stress of urban life, opportunities for play and sensory experiences, and enriching visual environments that support physical health and well-being. Outdoor education takes many forms, such as gardening, experiential learning in nearby parks, hiking, observing wildlife, and visiting historical and cultural places.

A systematic review of effects of outdoor classes identified multiple benefits, including positive social relationships, motivation for learning, opportunities for free play, and appreciation for nature. Another study by the Nature Conservancy supports the notion that greenspace environments help students build connections with the natural world and improve their school performance and test scores.

As a youth counselor, I can identify multiple benefits of exposure to nature and outdoor education. Here are a few:

  • Finding joy in learning from the natural world

  • Fostering curiosity and seeing the connection between all living things

  • Appreciating the need to preserve nature in light of climate change

  • Creating life balance from screen time and digital activities

  • Teaching children how to connect with themselves and their senses

  • Benefiting from the physical health benefits of movement and fresh air

  • Offering opportunities for social-emotional learning in a natural setting

We need to support student well-being in multiple ways. These include not only making certain that students have access to needed mental health services in school and the community. By providing opportunities to be exposed to nature and outdoor education, we are able to reach all students and support their healthy development.

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