2020 has forced traditional education to explore new avenues, of that there is little doubt. Learning has been pulled from the classroom and taken place in kitchens, gardens, through headphones and fibre optic cables. However, there is a real difference between learning that takes place in an environment and learning that actually uses the environment.
We wrote recently that education takes place beyond the classroom walls, and that the divisions put in place by traditional education are artificial, both between “subjects” and in separating our learners from the world outside.
We all know that learning takes place experientially in every corner of our environment, but yet tend to support it only within the confines of four walls. This is a missed opportunity. Though the urban space is certainly a rich field of bountiful learning opportunities, today we’re on to pastures new: outdoor, nature-based learning.
The concept and theory around the benefits of nature-based learning are well explored and evidence-based, with much of the research coming to us over the years from Scandinavia. From the Swedish Forest Schools to the central concept of Udeskolan in Denmark, this way of learning is culturally embedded in the nordic countries, and quite handily disproves the naysayers who tell us that it can’t be done in countries that have more rainy days than dry. Learning takes place, as the Swedes say 'I Ur och Skur' (come rain or shine).
That these models are closely tied to the Scandinavian relationship with nature is undeniable, but that doesn’t mean it cannot be built upon and adapted anywhere in the world. In this video chat between Guille, Emma and Sol, it is clear that outdoor learning is taking on a broader role in Learnlife’s Nature Hub.
While the Scandinavian models talk of “learning about nature in nature”, you’ll hear our Learning Guide, Guille, talking about a broader competency-based model. In Learnlife’s Garden Studio, learners will have the chance not only to learn about germination and growth of plants, for example, but also to develop numeracy, literacy, motor skills and social skills around the project.
Nature is a changing environment in which we not only interact with the cornucopia of sounds, smells and textures but also begin to build more of a relationship with the natural world. Where and how we learn will forever stay with us through a strong emotional bond, and so connecting positive learning experiences with the natural world will help us feel part of it.
As Roman Krznaric described in his talk on Outrospection, the future of this planet depends on our ability to form an empathic connection with the biosphere and understand our role and responsibility within it. That is something we must take seriously, and as learning guides we must use every tool at our disposal.
This empathic understanding and connection is not something that can be conveyed in a book, and the four walls of a classroom have to be left behind, as many of us dreamed we could while we gazed out of the classroom window as children at the beckoning world beyond. As Kerouac said, “I was surprised by how easy the act of leaving was, and how good it felt. The world was suddenly rich with possibility”.
The richness of possibility in nature-based learning means creativity is truly unfettered. Learning maths through natural objects, or learning about scientific practice as they provide evidence for which type of pine tree they think that is, or what type of insect has landed in the palm of their hand. While outdoor spaces in traditional settings have typically been for play, there really is no reason why play and learning should not be one in the same thing.
Nature-based learning is not only an enriching way to bring real life and learning together, but it is also calming, centering and grounding. There are numerous links to further reading here but the heart of the matter is that nature-based learning is profoundly good for us.
The emerging field of Ecotherapy is very clear that nature can have a profound impact on our mood, anxieties, attention, cognitive abilities, memory and a host of others. There’s a reason that doctors in Scotland have long been prescribing nature to reduce symptoms of depression, stress and ADHD. Take a look at the “course of treatment” recommended by doctors in Shetland (Warning! May cause smiling).
The point here is that when the evidence moves from observational and anecdotal to empirical, we have to listen, and we must embrace it. Our learners deserve only the best learning experience we can possibly offer them. Whether standing, moving, running or sitting, whether on a stool in our studio getting messy with 3D printers or sitting in the forest on portable chairs discussing today’s discoveries, our learners will always be at the centre.