Back when I was a kid, I remember begging my teacher one sunny fall day to take the class out and teach us outside in the schoolyard. I was having trouble concentrating sitting at my desk, and I longed to feel sunshine on my skin. I didn’t see why we couldn’t get the same lecture sitting out on the grass as we did at our desks.
I got a pretty firm “no” from my teacher back then, but these days it seems more and more educators are seeing the value of what kids know instinctively: children benefit from time outside.
Getting outside isn’t just good for kids at recess, lunch hour, and during the occasional PE class. Educators across Canada are increasingly concerned about the startling statistics about children’s inactivity, and the fact that kids these days are spending less and less time outside. A growing number of teachers are now starting to look for ways to encourage kids to move more during class time, including taking their classes outdoors.
A new initiative is taking this idea to another level. The Take Me Outside for Learning Challenge aims to get teachers teaching outside on a weekly basis throughout the school year.
Active for Life reached out to Take Me Outside’s founder, Colin Harris, to find out more about the challenge, and why it’s so important for educators to lead students to learn outside the classroom.
AfL: What motivated you to found Take Me Outside?
Colin Harris: From the age of 17, I had a dream to run across Canada. This was in part inspired by both Terry Fox and the Olympic torch relay for the 1988 Winter Olympics in Calgary. When I decided to attempt this journey of running 7,600 km from coast to coast, I wanted to attach a cause to it.
I had worked in outdoor education for years and there was emerging research coming out about how our time in front of screens was leading to sedentary lifestyles and affecting our physical health. So I founded Take Me Outside by running across Canada, visiting 80 schools and chatting with over 20,000 students about the importance of spending less time in front of screens and more time outside.
AfL: Why do you believe it is so important for educators to take children outside to learn?
Harris: I think there are two parts to this answer. I believe it’s important to take students outside for their learning because I’ve seen first-hand the benefits that come from this being included in someone’s teaching practice. I believe it’s important because we now live in a digital age, and while we have marched forward with ensuring there is plenty of technology in the classroom (which has its place), we know that the learning environment can extend beyond four walls and a desk. I also believe it’s important because we are so fortunate to live in a country that has such amazing geography, even within our cities. Our time outside shapes who we are as Canadians, and that’s important.
But the second part to this answer is perhaps more important: it doesn’t matter so much what I believe about this as what the research has to say.
Over the past decade, there are significant, evidence-based and peer-reviewed studies that show the numerous benefits—physically, mentally, emotionally, that come from students experiencing outdoor learning. It’s this research that needs to shape policy and help the education system move away from learning happening within the confines of four walls. There needs to be a fundamental shift to outdoor education, experiential learning, place-based and land-based learning to ensure our students have the best education possible.
AfL: How is this different from recess?
Harris: Sometimes there is this myth that taking students outside is just about playing games, having fun, or getting them to be physically active. While these things are obviously important reasons for taking students outside, it shouldn’t be limited to this rationale.
Serious and deep learning can happen outside with all subjects, be it math, science, geography, or social studies. While a controlled environment like an indoor classroom is sometimes necessary, there are so many opportunities to taking lessons outside of those four walls while still meeting curriculum requirements.
But I’m wary of saying that because it makes it seem like the responsibility for this is fully in the teacher’s hands, which is not the case. As we discover more and more how students learn, we need to shift the education system as a whole to move away from some of the systems in place that have existed for over a century.
AfL: Can you provide some examples of ways educators have used the outdoor experience to enhance learning?
Harris: The list is long, and it feels tough to provide specific examples, but perhaps the most current example would be talking about climate change.
This subject is covered in some capacity with most teachers. It’s important to watch videos of Greta Thunberg speak and numerous other resources that are accessed in the classroom. But what better way to talk about climate change than to go outside?
Climate action is what’s needed more than simply talking about climate change. And for students especially (although adults too), what better way to leverage action on climate change than to start with building their relationship to the outdoors and the natural environment. Spending time outside and learning about environmental education is the first step to caring about climate change.
AfL: What’s your favourite story or comment from a Take Me Outside Day participant?
Harris: Honestly, there are so many! It’s so inspiring to hear about a whole school that has committed to Take Me Outside Day and how it shifts their approach to teaching outside afterwards.
For years, schools in the Kootenay region of B.C. participated in Take Me Outside Day. A couple of years ago, the Columbia Basin Environmental Education Network and Kootenay Boundary Environmental Education decided they wanted to take it a step further. They asked their teachers to commit to taking their students outside for learning once a week throughout the entire school year.
Within two years, they had over half of their teachers committed to this! It’s been such a success that Take Me Outside as an organization is trying to implement this challenge nationally. So far we have over 900 teachers signed up and have committed to consistent outdoor learning.