Why outside matters

Learning outside the classroom provided my students with the ingredients they needed to be more successful back inside it.

Twenty five years ago I began my journey in education. I started at a school in western Sydney, not far from where I grew up, Principal Stephen Papp writes.

Like many beginning teachers I initially struggled with the demands of the job. I felt overwhelmed by the day to day administration, planning and curriculum requirements that all underpinned the actual teaching of students.

As I grew as a teacher I tried lots of different strategies to ensure my students loved to learn and were excited by school. One of my favourites was to augment classroom learning by taking students outside.

We would go to the shops when we were learning about money. We investigated the local creek when we were learning about water. We would explore school buildings when we were learning about angles.

I learnt that if I wanted my students to be engaged, inquisitive learners we could not sit in the classroom completing worksheets, we needed to use the real world to support learning in authentic ways.

By taking my students outside they were being provided with a range of rich experiences, knowledge and understandings that they could apply to the curriculum.

Happy learners

Essentially learning outside the classroom provided my students with the ingredients they needed to be more successful back inside it. The end result being a class full of engaged, happy learners.

The transformative value of these experiences shaped my own career path and led me to Field of Mars Environmental Education Centre in East Ryde Sydney, where I am now the Principal.

The Field of Mars Environmental Education Centre is one of 22 Environmental Education Centres operated by the NSW Department of Education to help students and teachers with fieldwork, environmental education and education for sustainability.

Every year my amazing team work with about 20,000 K-12 students to deliver curriculum based, open ended, diverse and meaningful authentic learning experiences in nature.

At the beginning of my career I discovered first hand how authentic learning could have a positive effect on student engagement.

Body of evidence

Clearly I am not the only one, because there is significant research and a growing body of evidence to suggest learning outdoors, and particularly learning in natural areas, can have a positive effect on engagement, learning and wellbeing. This applies just as much to adults as to young people.

Research shows that taking students outside, particularly in natural environments has multiple benefits for students, including:

  • increased interest, engagement and accessibility for a variety of learning styles
  • improved team work, co-operation and communication, which is translated into the classroom
  • decreased anxiety, stress and negative behaviours
  • improved questioning and problem solving skills
  • use of richer language in writing and verbal communication, when describing environments and experiences, and
  • the development of environmental stewardship values and stronger sense of concern and care for the environment later in life.

My love for outdoor learning did not happen after one lesson. It was a slow journey I took with my students over many years to discover what types of learning work in outdoor contexts.

If you are just starting your own journey I would look at what you are currently teaching to identify what could be enhanced by taking the learning outside.

Start small and build upon your success or failures (I have had many). Remember fail is just an acronym for First Attempt in Learning. Even without a formal lesson using school gardens and natural areas as a location for silent reading, art or story telling can have positive benefits.

Just being in nature helps students learn to observe living things and the changes that occur throughout the year. Most importantly it helps students learn to value nature and develop connections to it.

There are now many special days and events that could be used to kick start your outdoor pedagogy journey, these include:





During Term 3 and 4, I am very proud of the fact that the Field of Mars EEC is hosting the 2019 IEUA NSW/ACT Branch Environment Conference.

Fun and active

This is a hands on, fun and active conference that will focus on taking learning from a variety of syllabus areas including Geography, Science and English, outdoors.

Participants will walk away with a range of strategies, ideas and pedagogical approaches that can be applied to their own teaching and learning context.

Whatever journey you take it is really important to think about why you are doing it. For myself I am always guided by the words of Sir David Attenborough: “No one will protect what they don’t care about, and no one will care about what they have never experienced”.

As an educator I feel one of my greatest gifts has been to help thousands of young people experience nature and to develop a love and appreciation of it.

IEUA NSW/ACT Branch Environment Conference see https://www.ieu.asn.au/event-list/event-detail?eid=3742

Field of Mars Environmental Education Centre see https://fieldofmarseec.nsw.edu.au