Building the Evidence: Outdoor Learning Improves Outcomes for Children

On 10th May Children and Young People Now Magazine published a Special Report on Outdoor Learning, including sections on evidence, policy and a range of case studies. 

Here we bring you an extract, will full references, by Jim Burt, Natural England’s Principal Adviser for Outdoor Learning and Outdoors for All.

Outdoor Learning – improving outcomes for our children

Competing pressures mean that opportunities for children and young people to value and enjoy nature and the environment are under threat. Over the past 20 years evidence suggests that the area that children explore and play around their homes has reduced by upto 90% [29]. Last year 1.3 million (12%) children across England never visited the natural environment [25].

These trends are undoubtedly contributing to major challenges facing society today – including the rise in childhood obesity and mental health issues and the struggle to build a sense of place and community. Evidence clearly shows giving children the opportunity to discover, learn about and experience the natural world is hugely important. It enables a sense of belonging rooted in their local environment, enhancing health, wellbeing and educational outcomes whilst helping to safeguard the future of their environment.

The benefits of outdoor learning:

A substantial body of evidence shows that learning outdoors in natural environments, in a variety of contexts from formal to informal, is associated with a diverse range of positive outcomes for learners of all ages – including personal, social, educational, developmental and health outcomes [1,2,3,4,5.]  For example:

  • improved academic motivation and performance especially in reading, mathematics, science and social studies [1]. A recent study also highlighted an association between ‘connectedness to nature’ and higher achievement in English [20].
  • better motor skills [7] [8] and increased levels of physical activity [9]
  • improvement in school attendance rates [13], positive play behaviours [10] and improvements across a range of other developmental outcomes [11],
  • improved mental health [12], particularly for children suffering mental distress, low self-perceived social and personal skills [21], and children on the autistic spectrum [3].
  • a greater sense of community within and beyond the school [1].

Simply having  greater amounts of natural space in or around living or learning environments is associated with higher levels of physical activity, better emotional, behavioural and cognitive outcomes and with children developing a greater sense of connectedness to nature [8, 16, 17, 18, 19].

However, there is still a need to better understand what works, when and for whom. For example, the relative importance of the different types of activities – although adventure learning appears to be of particular benefit [2] with one review concluding that pupils made three months’ progress on their peers [14]. We also do not fully understand the relative importance of different types of natural environments, although some (such as forests or wilderness spaces) appear to afford better outcomes [14, 6].

Next steps

Despite the potential benefits of outdoor learning, a recent survey by Natural England found evidence of inequalities, with children from poorer families being less likely to visit the natural environment with their school or in their leisure time [25].  This suggests that children missing out on time spent in natural environments are also those likely to be experiencing health and learning inequalities.

The survey also found that local greenspace was important to children from all backgrounds [21), so targeting the provision for greater opportunities for outdoor learning in local greenspaces is likely to enable wider participation. Schools offer gateways to reconnect large numbers of children with their local natural environments. The Natural Connections Demonstration Project has been evaluating ways to develop local support for schools particularly in disadvantaged areas – to unlock a latent demand in schools for outdoor learning. This large scale demonstration project, funded by Natural England, Defra and Historic England and delivered through Plymouth University and local partners will be sharing its valuable findings about how to embed outdoor learning in schools, and the benefits it brings to both pupils and teachers, will be sharing its findings in mid July 2016.

Natural England’s ongoing evidence work with partners (including Historic England, Public Health England and the Council for Learning Outside the Classroom) includes developing a demonstration to integrate and improve health, learning and leisure service provision around local urban greenspace in East London and the development of a national indicator for children’s connection to nature.



  1. Dillon, J. and I. Dickie, Learning in the Natural Environment: Review of social and economic benefits and barriers. Natural England Commissioned Reports, 2012(092).
  2. Rickinson, M., et al., A review of research on outdoor learning. 2004, London: National Foundation for Educational Research and King’s College London. 68.
  3. Blakesley, D., M. Rickinson, and J. Dillon, Engaging children on the autistic spectrum with the natural environment: Teacher insight study and evidence review. 2013.
  4. Fiennes, C., et al., The Existing Evidence-Base about the Effectiveness of Outdoor Learning. Institute of Outdoor Learning, Blagrave Trust, UCL & Giving Evidence Report 2015.
  5. Ohly, H., et al. A systematic review of the health and well-being impacts of school gardening: synthesis of quantitative and qualitative evidence. BMC Public Health, 2016, 16(1), 1-36.
  6. Lovell, R., L. O’Brien, and R. Owen, Review of the research evidence in relation to the role of trees and woods in formal education and learning. Forest Research, 2010.
  7. Scholz, U. and H. Krombholz, A study of the physical performance ability of children from wood kindergartens and from regular kindergartens. Motorik Mar, 2007. 1: p. 17 – 22.
  8. Fjørtoft, I., Landscape as Playscape: The Effects of Natural Environments on Children’s Play and Motor Development. Children, Youth and Environments, 2004. 14(2): p. 21-44.
  9. Lovell, R., An evaluation of physical activity at Forest School. School of Clinical Sciences and Community Health. 2009, The Uiversity of Edinburgh Edinburgh p. 402.
  10. Ridgers, N.D., Z.R. Knowles, and J. Sayers, Encouraging play in the natural environment: a child-focused case study of Forest School. Children’s Geographies, 2012. 10(1): p. 49-65.
  1. O’Brien, L., Learning outdoors: the Forest School approach. Education 3-13, 2009. 37(1): p. 45-60.
  2. Roe, J. and P. Aspinall, The restorative outcomes of forest school and conventional school in young people with good and poor behaviour. Urban Forestry & Urban Greening, 2011. 10(3): p. 205-212.
  3. Price, A., Improving school attendance: can participation in outdoor learning influence attendance for young people with social, emotional and behavioural difficulties? Journal of Adventure Education and Outdoor Learning, 2015. 15(2): p. 110-122.
  4. Education Endowment Foundation, Outdoor Adventure Learning. 2016.

15.  Mitchell, R. and R. Shaw, Health impacts of the John Muir Award. undated University of Glasgow: John Muir Trust: GCPH: Glasgow.

  1. Amoly, E., et al., Green and blue spaces and behavioral development in Barcelona schoolchildren: the BREATHE project. Environ Health Perspect, 2014. 122(12): p. 1351-8.
  2. Dadvand, P., et al., Green spaces and cognitive development in primary schoolchildren. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 2015. 112(26): p. 7937-7942.
  3. Bagot, K.L., F.C.L. Allen, and S. Toukhsati, Perceived restorativeness of children’s school playground environments: Nature, playground features and play period experiences. Journal of Environmental Psychology, 2015. 41: p. 1-9.
  4. Fjørtoft, I., B. Kristoffersen, and J. Sageie, Children in schoolyards: Tracking movement patterns and physical activity in schoolyards using global positioning system and heart rate monitoring. Landscape and Urban Planning, 2009. 93(3–4): p. 210-217.
  5. Richardson, M., et al., The Impact of Children’s Connection to Nature: A Report for the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds 2015, University of Derby for RSPB.
  6. Scrutton, R.A., Outdoor adventure education for children in Scotland: quantifying the benefits. Journal of Adventure Education and Outdoor Learning, 2015. 15(2): p. 123-137.
  7. Roe, J. and P. Aspinall, The Emotional Affordances of Forest Settings: An Investigation in Boys with Extreme Behavioural Problems. Landscape Research, 2011. 36(5): p. 535-552
  8. Warren, K., et al., Social Justice in Outdoor Experiential Education: A State of Knowledge Review. Journal of Experiential Education, 2014. 37(1): p. 89-103.
  9. Gustafsson, P.E., et al., Effects of an outdoor education intervention on the mental health of schoolchildren. Journal of Adventure Education and Outdoor Learning, 2012. 12(1): p. 63-79.
  10. Hunt, A. et al Monitor of Engagement with the Natural Environment: a pilot to develop an indicator of visits to the natural environment by children. 2016.NECR 208.
  11. Mårtensson, F., et al., The role of greenery for physical activity play at school grounds. Urban Forestry & Urban Greening, 2014. 13(1): p. 103-113.
  12. Dillon, J., et al., The value of outdoor learning: evidence from research in the UK and elsewhere. School science review, 2006. 87(320): p. 107.
  13. Craig P., D.P., Macintyre S., Michie S., Nazareth I., Petticrew M., Developing and evaluating complex interventions: new guidance. . 2008, MRC: www mrc ac uk/Utilities/Documentrecord/index htm?d=MRC004871. 29. Pawson, R. and N. T
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3 Responses to Building the Evidence: Outdoor Learning Improves Outcomes for Children

  1. Pingback: Building the Evidence: Outdoor Learning Improves Outcomes for Children | Mr. Cooper

  2. Pingback: Why We’re Crowdfunding: Inequality and the Outdoors | Mud Pie Academy

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