A Brief Look At Nature As The Classroom

This post is followed by a couple of reference links, at the bottom, for further reading, if you are interested.

For a couple of years both of my kids went to a public Montessori school in our district, that that they were enrolled in via lottery.  This was their second and third grade years for each of them, but both Monkey and Abalone left Montessori before they could finish their third-grade year.  One reason we left was because they needed more structure due to their ADHD. But the promise of Montessori that lured me to the school was that the kids would have less transitions and could work on something for long periods without being interrupted.  This time period to go deep into a subject, without interruptions, was a huge pull for me to enroll them in Montessori. 

I had grand dreams that they’d be outside in nature often.  I thought they could pursue their real interests without the hounding of the school that my kids “were behind a grade level” because, after all, Montessori teaches to the child and meets them where they are at. Right? 

But those dreams just weren’t going to come to fruition. Those dreams  weren’t true for this particular school, and so we left. There were other reasons, but that was a big chunk of it.  I don’t fault Montessori at all, I fault that particular school, it’s staff, and my failure to realize that it’s still a public school and still beholden to the U.S. Department of Education’s academic standards – and the regular harassment I’d receive about these standards from the staff at that school.

Maria Montessori believed that children are natural learners. I did, and still do believe that the policy of an indoor classroom where children sit at desks until they are allowed to go outside for recess and get fresh air is a bad policy; and that we should, literally, be allowing children to become said “natural learners” and spend significant classroom time outdoors, in, you know, nature? 

A recent study done placed third graders outdoors during various formal lessons and then a 20-minute observation period of the students to rate engagement and behavior during classroom study, indoors. (Kuo, Browning & Penner, 2018) 

The results showed that:

“In 48 out of 100 paired comparisons, the nature lesson was a full standard deviation better than its classroom counterpart; in 20 of the 48, the nature lesson was over two standard deviations better.”

And this wasn’t a romp in the woods or just playing outdoors.  The study conducted by Kuo, et al. involved just 20 minutes of formal instruction and class time for the third graders. And showed immediate results and half as many redirects by teachers once they all got back to class and went on to the next subject that was taught indoors. 

But why haven’t the policies changed and allowed my class time outside?  

Well, in the Kuo study two classrooms were used with experienced teachers.  One teacher thought outdoor time would increase child engagement, while the other teacher thought the children would be wired and amped up after the outdoor class time.  Perhaps this idea that kids will be harder to corral after being outdoors is the reason policies have not changed? In that case, the school should allow a pilot program of their own.  Perhaps the worry of children being led away from the “safe” indoor classroom would lead to injury, or a lost or kidnapped child?  Well, then don’t leave campus.

And it’s not enough for kids to be able to see outside, they have to BE outside. Classes don’t have to leave the school to get the benefit from the outdoors.  

Students could simply go out to the play-yard under a tree and in the grass. 

Perhaps the class that is outside might be a distraction to other classes inside that can view out their windows?  Well, if all the other classes had something similar then it would become a normal part of school and less of a distraction. 

Perhaps, the old-school administrators of school districts just have something against an outdoor classroom and need to be either voted out, or educated themselves.  Many nature-based curriculum and private elementary schools are popping up all over the U.S. Forest schools that originated in Europe are now becoming more and more common in the U.S. Homeschoolers have been implementing nature in their lessons for years.

Lisa Murphy, The Ooey Gooey Lady,  advises that one keeps a binder with articles about play-supported, and nature-based learning to show proof that being stuck in a lecture is NOT the only way a child learns. Perhaps teachers, educators, child care workers, and parents should all assemble their own “F U Binder” to show the old stuck up blue hairs that the 100+ year old model of education is no longer working in an economic society that is not full of people who work in factories any more.  NOTHING human-created has been processed the exact same way for over 100 years, except for the school system. You can start your binder with the study and blog post links referenced at the end of this article. You can print out this article. And then go add some more from last week’s blog post about self-esteem in preschoolers.

To overcome obstacles teachers can do a few things to implement nature into their classroom and curriculum.  First, definitely read books based on research and the natural environment for children. I’d recommend Richard Louv’s “Last Child In The Woods”. Teachers can also collaborate with others who are interested in a natural classroom, much like what they do when they collaborate on lesson planning. Teachers can start with the obvious outdoor lesson plans like plant biology or weather and then move on to lessons that wouldn’t have anything to do with nature, like geometry (except the shape of natural things can involve geometry). 

Educators might want to do their research into any school, district, or state policies that don’t allow for outdoor learning and be prepared to argue their side to administrators.  A school garden should be constructing, at a minimum, and classrooms can each have their own bed within the garden with parent volunteers to help. Schools should also consider creating an outdoor classroom in addition to allowing classroom time out on the lawn of the play yard.  Finally, Richard Louv suggests starting a private or charter school that is nature-based. And what a cool thing that would be to get experienced teachers together with parents to create a whole public charter elementary school that is free and nature-based? 

Having a classroom outdoors can be for any subject matter – nature-specific lessons are not required for teaching in the outdoors. Lectures outdoors can have a powerful impact on students of any age and learning in an outside classroom also keeps kids engaged in the NEXT subject matter, that they did not get lessons on while outside.  So, if/when they return to the indoors, they will be more attentive and involved in that subject following the outdoor classroom time. Even if it’s just one 20 minute lesson a day, it can have a big impact. I’m tired of hearing about recesses being taken away from kids, it’s time the last of the xennials and gen-xers with kids still in school, and the millennial moms shake shit up in the schools. And if you’re a Millennial Mom who didn’t get into the outdoors like the generation before you, we’d love to tell you our stories, we have many.

Until next time, Screen Savers.


Kuo M, Browning MHEM and Penner ML (2018) Do Lessons in Nature Boost Subsequent Classroom Engagement? Refueling Students in Flight. Front. Psychol. 8:2253. Retrieved from here.

Louv, Richard (2014) EVERY TEACHER CAN BE A NATURAL TEACHER: 10 Ways You Can Add Vitamin “N” to the Classroom & Beyond. Retrieved from here.

What do you have to say for yourself?