Why Outdoor Learning
By | July 31, 2018

People seem to know that being outdoors is good. They ‘feel it’. And teachers who have embraced outdoor learning reflect back the impact on both academic success but also wider skills and child well-being. There is a growing body of evidence that reflects these benefits and this short summary captures some of the current reasons to encourage children to become ‘outdoor citizens’.

1. The outdoors is good for us!

The outdoors and the natural environment, in particular, is inherently good for us. We have recognised this for many years and it is something that has recently been highlighted in DEFRA’s 25 year Environment Plan.

‘We know that regular contact with green spaces, such as the local park, lake, or playground, can have a beneficial impact on children’s physical and mental health’1

When outdoors young people are usually more active and often participate in active play, learning or outdoor activities. ‘Moreover, the benefits of regular outdoor play continue into later life. There is clear evidence to show that a child’s attitude towards exercise lays in the foundation for their habits as an adult’2.   We also know that both physical exercise3 and regular contact with the natural environment have a positive impact on mental health4. For example:

‘Findings suggest that everyday play settings make a difference in overall symptom severity in children with ADHD. Specifically, children with ADHD who play regularly in green play settings have milder symptoms than children who play in built outdoor and indoor settings. This is true for all income groups and for both boys and girls’5.

After all, it can be great fun being outdoors, despite the challenges of the weather! And it is often one of the childhood experiences that stick in our minds as being memorable – ‘outdoor learning creates healthy happy learners’6

2. There is an impact on learning

‘There is a sizeable body of evidence, including several reviews, which demonstrate positive associations between multiple forms of learning in the natural environment and a range of educational, social, developmental and mental or physical health outcomes’7. This has been backed up with recent international research that ‘has also evidenced that exposure to green environments improves children’s academic results and memory’8. A study from Derby University has shown that ‘children who were more connected to nature had significantly higher English attainment’9.  When linked to specific writing intervention a recent Education Endowment Foundation report found that there was a significant impact on learning. This ‘project aimed to use memorable experiences and an approach called ‘Self-Regulated Strategy Development’ (SRSD) to help struggling writers in Years 6 and 7. Memorable experiences, such as trips to local landmarks or visits from World War II veterans, were used as a focus for writing lessons.

Overall, the project appeared to have a large positive impact on writing outcomes. The overall effect size for writing, comparing the progress of pupils in the project to similar pupils who did not participate was +0.74. This effect size was statistically significant, meaning that it is unlikely to have occurred by chance, and can be envisaged as saying that participating pupils made approximately nine months’ additional progress compared to similar pupils who did not participate in the intervention’ 10.

The Education Foundation has also recognised the importance that adventure learning can have on attainment and has recently stated that:

‘Overall, studies of adventure learning interventions consistently show positive benefits on academic learning. On average, pupils who participate in adventure learning interventions make approximately four additional months’ progress over the course of a year. There is also evidence of an impact on non-cognitive outcomes such as self-confidence’11.

3. More social confident young people

Progressive exposure to learning outdoors provides a route for young people to become more resilient12. They can move from exploring the world outside of the classroom to a first night away from home and onto a demanding expedition in this country or abroad. This progressive process helps develop life-long skills and attitudes that contribute towards healthy and fulfilled lives. Outdoor learning provides opportunities to develop social and emotional resilience, support wider learning and develop broader interests13.

Over the last few years the importance of developing ‘character’ 14 and’ Life Skills’ 15 has been recognised as a major contributor to a young person’s life chances and essential for succeeding in an ever-changing work place and wider world.  In a recent DfE survey16 72% of schools said that they used ‘outward bound activities’ to develop positive character traits.

‘Numerous studies have shown that character attributes are correlated with educational attainment, school attendance and positive attitudes towards school. A recent review from the Early Intervention Foundation (EIF) found that good character attributes at the age of 10 were more important than ‘cognitive skills’ (using measures of literacy and numeracy) at that age when it came to predict mental health and life satisfaction in later life’17.

The outdoors has often been referenced as ‘character building’ bringing people together to overcome common challenges. The personal and social impacts of outdoor learning have been identified in several studies18 with such impacts being particularly marked when young people take part in residential experiences. Residentials are a surprisingly powerful developmental experience19 and young people have been found to develop their social skills and foster new relationships both with their peers and accompanying adults20. The impact of which is often sustained back in school or other settings. The integration of residential experiences21 and indeed all outdoor learning experiences back into the school setting is seen as key in maximising learning impact and getting the most value for learning from these experiences. This is when the learning is embedded and sustained and in fact in many school that sit at the top of the current accountability framework and success measures use outdoor and residential programmes ‘as an important and valuable part of the education they provide’22.


Martin Smith is the Senior Advisor – Academic Resilience at Greenwood Academies Trust

He is the Chair of the Outdoor Council www.outdoorcouncil.uk The Outdoor Council is the umbrella body for organisations and individuals who support outdoor learning for all.

This is part of a series of articles on outdoor learning to mark the start of Born Outdoors to Outdoor Citizen. An Outdoor Council Programme and Campaign.


Over 200 organisations are collaborating to ensure that all 750,000 four-year olds entering reception classes in September 2022 will be guaranteed high quality outdoor learning throughout their school life and through a rich set of family, youth work and community experiences. We want the children born in 2017 to be a generation ‘born outdoors’. We want them to have experiences at every age and stage of their childhood that move them towards being a generation of ‘outdoor citizens’ when they turn 18 in 2035.


1. DEFRA (2018) 25 Year Environment Plan, p75
2. Moss, S (2012) Natural Childhood, National Trust
3. Edmunds, S (2017) Building self-esteem and wellbeing through physical activity, Ucando-it.
4. Lovell, R (2106) Links between natural environments and physical activity: evidence briefing, Natural England Access to Evidence Information Note EIN019, Natural England
5. Faber T A, Kuo F E. (2011) Could Exposure to Everyday Green Spaces Help Treat ADHD? Evidence from Children’s Play Settings, University of Illinois at Urbana‐Champaign, USA. https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/pdf/10.1111/j.1758-0854.2011.01052.x
6. Malone, K and Waite, S ((2106) Student Outcomes and Natural Schooling. Plymouth: Plymouth University.
7. Lovell, R (2106) Links between natural environments and learning: evidence briefing, Natural England Access to Evidence Information Note EIN017, Natural England
8. Malone, K and Waite, S ((2106) Student Outcomes and Natural Schooling. Plymouth: Plymouth University.
9. Richardson, M et al (2106) The Impact of Children’s Connection to Nature: A Report for the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB).
10. Torgerson, D and Torgerson, C: Co-authors: Ainsworth, H; Buckley,H; Heaps,C; Hewitt C: Mitchell, N. (2104) Improving Writing Quality – Evaluation Report and Executive Summary, Education Endowment Foundation.
11. https://educationendowmentfoundation.org.uk/evidence-summaries/teaching-learning-toolkit/outdoor-adventure-learning/
12. Allen, J; McKenna J; Hind K (2012) Brian resilience: Shedding light into the back box of adventure processes, Australian Journal of Outdoor Education, 16 (1), 3-14.
13. Dillon, J (2011) Understanding the diverse benefits of learning in the natural environments. King’s College London.
14. Paterson, C. Tyler, R and Lexmond, J. (2104) Character and Resilience Manifesto. The all party parliamentary group on social mobility.
15. Cullinane, C and Montacute, M (2017) Life Lessons: Improving essential life skills for young people. The Sutton Trust.
16. NatCen Social Research and the National Children’s Bureau Research and Policy Team (2107) Developing character skills in schools, DfE
17. Birdwell, J; Ralph, S and Reynolds, L (2015) Character Nation: A Demos report with the Jubilee Centre for Character and Virtues. DEMOS
18. Malone, K and Waite, S ((2106) Student Outcomes and Natural Schooling. Plymouth: Plymouth University.
19. Williams, R (2012) Woven into the fabric of experience: residential adventure education and complexity. Journal of Adventure Education and Outdoor Learning
20. Carne, P and Sian, W (2017) Brilliant Residentials and their impact on young people: Making the case for high quality residential learning, Learning Away
21. Kendall, S and Rodger (2105) Evaluation of Learning Away: Final Report, York Consulting LLP
22. Kerwin-Nye, A and Niman, T (2018) Work on the Wild Side: Outdoor Learning and Schools, NotDeadFish