URBANA, Ill. – Amid one of the strangest back-to-school seasons in modern history, many teachers, parents, and caregivers are struggling to enrich their students’ experiences beyond screen-based learning. A new study from University of Illinois researchers suggests daily outdoor lessons in green spaces could boost self-regulation in young children, setting them up for greater academic and social-emotional success.
“Self-regulation is a foundational element for learning in school, and kindergarten is a critical time for its development. If a child has good self-regulation, they're able to regulate their emotions, physical movements, and attention which in turn helps them to stay on task, inhibit impulses, and learn without disrupting peers,” says Andrea Faber Taylor, teaching assistant professor in the Department of Crop Sciences at Illinois and co-author on the Journal of Environmental Psychology study.
Taylor’s research shows kindergarteners receiving daily lessons outdoors in school-adjacent green spaces had greater self-regulation after the semester-long intervention period than children who only learned outside once per week.
“There have been studies where they'll do a handful of lessons outdoors and show that students are better off immediately after the lesson. But not many have assessed cumulative gains over a longer period of time,” Taylor says. “Here, we showed the higher the frequency of visits outdoors and the more minutes they spent outside weekly, the greater the gains.”
More than 380 kindergarteners across nine Canadian schools participated in the study. Half of the classrooms were assigned to a weekly outdoor lesson, while the other half received outdoor lessons daily, even during inclement weather. The study spanned an entire semester – either spring or fall, depending on the school.
Teachers delivered inquiry-based lessons for either 30 or 60 minutes in green schoolyards featuring sand, grass, or mulch; young trees; and natural play features such as stumps, sandboxes, and garden areas.
“They're learning by exploring, basically. The teacher prompts kids with questions about what they're finding and usually follow a theme,” Taylor says. Importantly, all teachers were also delivering inquiry-based lessons during indoor learning.
Taylor was primarily interested in these formal inquiry-based sessions, but also collected data on the total number of minutes all students spent outdoors weekly in green spaces while at school - on walks, during recess, or exploring nearby woods. When Taylor included the quantity of time in some of her analyses, she noted that even students in the “once-weekly lesson” group were getting more time in green spaces than she expected. Clearly, though, those in the “daily outdoor lesson” group were spending significantly more time outside.
Students were scored on two measures of self-regulation at the beginning and again at end of the semester. Taylor noted at the end of the semester, controlling for baseline scores, girls in the daily lesson cohort scored higher on self-regulation metrics compared to girls in the weekly group. She also found a positive relationship for girls when looking at the cumulative number of minutes spent outdoors, with more minutes per week relating to higher scores.
Taylor says girls may be more physically active when outdoors, whereas kindergarten boys have similar levels of activity regardless of their environment. But she says physical activity can’t be solely responsible for the gains in self-regulation because girls also move more on manmade playgrounds without the same benefits.
“There's something about green spaces that provide an additional benefit beyond just being outdoors,” Taylor says. “For boys, the benefits for self-regulation were a little less clear, but the pattern was still in the right direction.”
Ultimately, Taylor thinks the time in green space benefits kindergarteners by providing respite from the fatigue of constantly working to pay attention in school.
“As adults, we don't see kindergarten as work. But these kids are constantly negotiating peer relationships, figuring out whose space they're in and how close is too close, how much touching is too much, all those things. Not to mention staying on task, attending to the rules of the classroom, the physical space, teacher instructions, and so forth,” Taylor says.
“So moving out to green spaces may provide them the opportunity to rest and recover because it's less draining than a built environment. That comes from the larger body of research showing that humans, including adults, rest and recover faster in green spaces than we do in urban spaces and built environments. We're just applying that theory to green schoolyards.”
She explains the frequency of exposure to green spaces probably matters because the more often kids go outside, the less attentional fatigue has a chance to build up between outings. It may also be that kids who routinely go outside at school develop a greater comfort level with being in and navigating natural elements. In other words, nature isn’t seen as new; kids can let their guard down and relax.
The study’s unique long-term design provides a solid argument for schools to invest in green schoolyards and outdoor curricula, especially for young children in critical periods of self-regulation development. But Taylor says the results don’t have to be applied exclusively to school-based learning, especially now.
“Parents could be doing these things at home; certainly the positive outcomes are not limited to a school setting. And for classes that are meeting face-to-face, it’s much easier to be widely spaced in an outdoor setting.”
The article, “Self-regulation gains in kindergarten related to frequency of green schoolyard use,” is published in the Journal of Environmental Psychology [DOI: 10.1016/j.jenvp.2020.101440]. Authors include Andrea Faber Taylor and Carrie Butts-Wilmsmeyer. This work was funded by the TD Friends of the Environment Foundation, Toronto, ON.
The Department of Crop Sciences is in the College of Agricultural, Consumer and Environmental Sciences at the University of Illinois.