As college students return to campus, either full time or for a hybrid school year, there are numerous opportunities to take learning outdoors for students’ mental and physical health. College is a time of high anxiety and uncertainty, especially for new students, and entering college during a Global pandemic means that students will benefit from routines, structures, and frequent opportunities for self-care and support. The good news is that time outdoors has proven benefits for mental and emotional well-being.
What Could This Look Like?
College classes can happen outdoors and they should! Rather than try to recreate an indoor experience outdoors (such as by moving rows of desks and chairs to a tennis court or under a tent outside), professors should consider seeking out novel places on or nearby campus, such as community gardens, walking paths, nearby parks, or other outdoor spaces that are nature-rich. Students can sit on the ground, on mats or camp chairs, and enjoy the benefits of fresh air and open space while they learn. Professors can create independent learning activities that their students can complete outside. Writing assignments, reading and even research can be conducted outdoors.
Students can be encouraged to seek connections between course content and community resources. For example, this might mean mapping campus or campus resources, learning about public services such as public transportation, food access, and other necessities. Many content areas can be connected to college courses and direct exploration of the local community is a great way to engage students while providing safe and rigorous outdoor learning opportunities. Since CoVid-19 has temporarily shuttered many study abroad programs, how might you engage students in “microadventure” programs that are focused locally?
Encourage Outdoor Time
A daily assignment that prompts students to go outdoors can be useful in helping first year students in setting routines, managing their time, and also feeling grounded. Knowing that time in nature has cognitive and emotional benefits, professors should recognize that daily time outdoors can be critically important as students deal with the stress of the pandemic, the uncertainty of the future, and possible worries about loved ones.In addition, it helps students maintain attention and focus throughout their day. College campuses should establish and maintain outdoor spaces for students to study, relax, and work in small, socially distanced groups. These could include places for students to hang hammocks, sit on picnic blankets or at small tables, or under the spreading branches of trees. Many places that were formerly “off-limits” to students’ recreational activities such as hammocks, frisbee games, or football should be re-evaluated and accessible whenever possible.
Why Outdoor Learning in Higher Education?
Learning about nature and how to teach well outdoors should be integrated into all teacher education programs. Joe Walewski, Director of Naturalist Training at Wolf Ridge, works with 20 graduate students and student teachers every year. “I am pleased to know several K12 classroom teachers in MN who found their passion to teach while working at a nature center or residential environmental learning center. Teaching math and reading outdoors isn’t a challenge - it’s enjoyable! Nature journaling serves as the perfect reflective tool for those topics. Students and teachers are able to slow down, notice their surroundings, take notes, and share with others. They enjoy cognitive, emotional, and social benefits by being in and learning from the outdoors.”
"I think spending time outside is important and teaches us many things. I feel like this class is important especially at this time in our life with COVID-19 because nature builds inner strength in all of us. It helps us reduce stress and maintain positivity."
-- Hamline College Student
"College can be extremely demanding, figuring out ever-changing schedules, managing my workload and trying to stay on top of my assignments is no small challenge. As soon as I go outside [for this assignment] I can feel my brain and body relaxing and I am able to breathe again. I know nature also helps me re-focus when I have to go back inside"
-- Hamline College Student