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When Nature is Nurture: Structured Outdoor Learning

January 25, 2022

Nature can be a stimulating environment for learning—this article looks at the benefits of the great outdoors for children on the spectrum.

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

But humans are wired for being outdoors. Nature is in our nature. Fresh air, birds singing, sunlight dancing through leaves, the scent of the earth, the serenity of a woodland path, and the beauty of a garden in bloom help us relax, think more clearly, and develop a connection with something immense and timeless. 

Experiencing the great outdoors enhances and develops creativity, imagination, concentration, observation skills, and a sense of wonderment. A computer screen depicting an image of a butterfly, for example, doesn’t evoke the same sense of awe, curiosity, and imagination as watching one flitting about in a garden. 

Indeed, nature is beneficial for us all, including children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD).

Outdoor learning in the Forest School tradition

The pandemic has reenergized our interest in spending more time in the open-air, including outdoor learning and play for our children. Yet, outdoor learning is not a new concept. 

Understanding the benefits of structured exploration and supported risk-taking, the founders of Forest School started an outdoor school movement in Sweden in the 1950s. Forest School integrates elements of planning, observation, adaptation, and reviewing into the learning experience through regular, scheduled sessions in a woodland or natural environment, rain or shine.

Educators and parents alike appreciate the possibilities of holistic growth through outdoor play and learning, and the Forest School concept has steadily gained popularity since its inception. 

Today, we continue to recognize the positive influence its principles have 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 incongruent. How can all that natural sensory input benefit children with autism, especially those with hypersensitivities involving sights, sounds, smells, touch, and balance? The Forest School approach, which offers a balance of freedom and structure, provides another way to conceptualize, understand, organize, and feel sensory data from the environment and 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 autistic children

  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 improve sensory integration

  1. Social/emotional

Nature is a natural stress reducer that helps instill positive feelings. Being outside also removes autistic children from some of their typical life stressors. The Health & Place report notes that children on the autism spectrum 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 outdoors in nature is a great way to stay active. Walking, reaching, and moving about in nature over varying surfaces offers new ways to improve general fitness, health, agility, coordination, and balance.

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Each child is unique

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

Experiences in nature in a Forest School or similar program can meet both needs. Nature is ever-changing, yet there are recognizable patterns in weather, seasons, plants, and animals. Logs and leaves, roots and bark, flowers, birds, and animals engage all the senses and encourage practical 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 ensure there are opportunities to retreat and be quiet for those who need the space.  

Inspirational learning process, far-reaching benefits

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

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

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

However, providing a child-centered inspirational learning process is at the heart of a Forest School approach. Curiosity and exploration are encouraged, and the focus of activities is on the social and emotional aspects of learning rather than academic knowledge acquisition. The forest or garden is the school, offering children 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 embrace the Forest School approach. In fact, therapeutic gardens and gardening have become an essential component of outdoor education and activity for children with ASD and other disorders, with tangible results. 

Photography, too, is a skill that many children love to develop through their observations of the natural world. It is an activity that offers children who are less mobile than others, especially those who use wheelchairs, the chance to be creative. 

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

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