Outdoor education has many benefits, both for teachers and young people, but those who want to put it into practice face many challenges, The 89th Congress of the French-Canadian Association for the Promotion of Science (ACFAS).
Current scientific studies show that even brief contact with nature can have a positive effect on learning, its preservation and transmission as well as on attention.
Other research has linked outdoor exercise to reduced physical inactivity, increased light physical activity, and decreased blood pressure and risk of myopia. A reduction in anxiety and an increase in general well-being, self-efficacy and self-esteem are also mentioned.
“We don’t just go outside to have fun and then play,” said Jean-Philippe Ayotte-Beaudet, Research Chair in Outdoor Education at the University of Sherbrooke. It’s not a problem to do it, but there are many people who may have prejudices that we only have fun when we go outside. (…) People who practice education to the full know that there are processes related to teaching.
Despite all these obvious advantages, it is still difficult to know what place outdoor education (that is, instructional situations that are conducted outdoors and whose main objective is to lead to learning) occupies in Quebec schools.
In December 2020 and January 2021, researchers from the chair therefore asked 1,008 teachers in Quebec, both primary and secondary school, to take part in a short online survey. A more detailed telephone follow-up was then carried out with 133 of them.
The vast majority of participants taught in the public sector, mainly in a semi-urban setting.
Especially in elementary school
First observation: the practice is more widespread in primary school than in secondary school. A third of primary school teachers said they taught outdoors in 2019 and 2020, but another third admitted they had never done so. The other third represent those who taught outdoors in either 2019 (8.7%) or 2020 (19.1%).
In secondary school, more than half of teachers admitted that they had never stuck their nose outside with their youth for educational purposes. A quarter of the participants taught outside in 2019 and 2020. Comparable percentages of 7.4% and 10.7% had done so in either year.
This means that, overall, almost 43% of the teachers who responded to this survey have never practiced outdoor teaching.
Not surprisingly, at both levels, physical education and health rank first among the subjects most commonly taught outside. French, mathematics and science and technology follow in primary school. At secondary level, positions 2 to 4 are science and technology, languages and arts.
While the schoolyard is obviously the place where these classes take place most often, participants also mentioned a city park or even a wooded area or forest. The researchers were also surprised to find that several teachers reported having a “furnished outdoor classroom” available.
Connecting young people to nature, putting concrete contexts at the service of learning and benefiting from a larger space are the three most frequently cited reasons for explaining the use of outdoor education.
Between 93% and 97% of teachers who practice outdoor teaching reported seeing benefits for student well-being, motivation, learning, and engaging in physical activity. However, only 63% saw an improvement in their teens’ attention.
“We don’t just learn formal content, we may need to develop values or feelings,” said Mr Ayotte-Beaudet.
Several teachers also testified to benefits for their own mental health.
Weather conditions and student management are some of the biggest obstacles for teachers taking their class to the great outdoors.
One participant in the survey stated that he had to reduce his number of trips compared to the previous year because there were somewhat too demanding young people in his group. Another was pleased to have a variety of volunteer parents to draw from, noting that having extra eyes can be very valuable.