Helping All Children to Bloom and Grow: The Evidence Behind The Importance of Outdoor Time

Gemma Goldenberg, Psychologist, Educator and Co-Founder of Nestkids
24th June 2024

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I’ve spent most of my adult life working with children and it’s never seemed natural to me that we often keep them cooped up inside for most of the day, only allowing children outside during the school day to play or have a break- as if outdoors it isn’t the right environment for the learning itself. With younger infants, especially those who can’t walk yet, we tend to think that it might be too wet or cold outdoors, and its better to keep them warm inside. Yet in other places around the world, babies and toddlers sleep outside at nursery even in sub-zero temperatures!

With my own children, I noticed that outside their behaviour was always much easier to manage. Outdoors there are fewer rules! Throwing things, being loud, moving fast – it’s all acceptable outside! But I had never thought much about whether outdoors is better for learning, until I experienced daily walks in our local forest during the Covid lockdown periods. I noticed that when I was walking in nature, I often remembered things I had forgotten, solved a difficult work problem or gained clarity about something that was struggling with. I began to wonder why this was, and whether being outside affects the brain.

When I started looking for research, I found hundreds of papers on the wide range of benefits of being outside, scientific evidence that outdoor time not only helps with attention and memory but can also support physical development, sleep, health and immunity, self-esteem, social skills, stress and even more. I couldn’t believe that after almost 2 decades of working with children, I had never come across this research before.

Fascinated, I decided to leave my job as an Assistant Headteacher and start a PhD researching the impact of outdoor time. I asked children from Early Years classrooms to wear heart rate monitors, head mounted cameras and small microphones so that I could analyse their stress levels, attention and behaviour across both indoor and outdoor settings. From the camera footage I could code and analyse the children’s behaviour, the activities they chose to engage with, and how long they stayed at each activity before moving on. It was the first time that such a study had ever been conducted.

After two years of collecting data from 76 children, I analysed the results. Using a decibel meter, I found that outdoor sessions were consistently quieter than indoor ones, even when the children were doing the same activities. I also found that children’s resting heart rates were lower outdoors, suggesting lower levels of stress. Interestingly, when the children sat down and listened to a story indoors, the noise levels in the room were correlated with their heart rates i.e. as the noise increased, their heart rates increased too, suggesting that the noise was stressful for them. But when they were outdoors, this wasn’t the case. Even when it began to get noisier outside, their heart rates weren’t affected. Being outdoors seemed to buffer them from the stressful effects of noise.

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I found that children were more likely to engage in imaginative play when they were outdoors, and they also spent more time chatting with their peers. Given the current challenges with many children’s speech and language development, this felt really important. I then looked at children’s focus and engagement. When I studied group averages, whether children were indoors or outside didn’t seem to make much difference to how long they stayed engaged with an activity for. However, when I looked specifically at the data from children who struggled to pay attention indoors, I noticed that their focus and concentration really improved outside.

The same sort of pattern emerged when I looked at how prosocial and antisocial children were with their peers. Looking at data from the whole group, there were similar levels of anti and prosocial behaviour in the indoor and outdoor environments. But when I looked at the video footage of children who struggled with their behaviour indoors, they were much less antisocial in the outdoor environment. Similarly, the children who were the least prosocial indoors, were more prosocial when they went outside.

My research showed that sometimes what looks like an attention or behaviour problem in a young child, can actually be an issue with the environment they’re in. Different environments are optimal for different children, and for some young children, especially those who were struggling indoors, being outside was transformational. As Alexander Den Heijer said:

“When a flower doesn’t bloom, you fix the environment in which is grows, not the flower”

The process of doing my PhD has made me passionate about bringing the most interesting and relevant research to people who work with young children. As a teacher I never had the time to read research papers but the information would have been really helpful. To help bridge this gap, I set up with my colleague Professor Sam Wass, a neuroscientist. We help early years practitioners use research evidence and neuroscience in their work by offering training and support. We translate research into practical tips and make it easily digestible for busy people! During the PhD I also started an Instagram account @phd_and_three to share both my own research results and the most interesting research findings I came across from other scientists. It quickly became a great online community for people who are interested in why taking children outdoors more, can benefit children’s development. I still post there whenever I come across something fascinating about the outdoors that I think early years practitioners and teachers would want to know!

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