This year, Prairie Rivers of Iowa is working on a project to assist Iowa’s outdoor classrooms in becoming more effective by researching existing outdoor classrooms in the state, seeking best practices from around the country, and putting together resources and materials for educators who want to create an outdoor classroom in their area.1 You probably also know about our work with area schools through our Kids on the Byway and School and Community Gardens programs.
In honor of National Soil and Water Conservation Week, it’s worth taking a look at the important role that healthy soil and water can play in educating the next generation of Iowa leaders. Research has shown many benefits result when students are able to experience the natural environment in person as part of their education. These experiences can help contribute to child development and skill-building, increase fitness and motor skills, and even build creativity and reduce stress. Outdoor experiences also help increase student success in a whole variety of academic content areas: in science, language arts, math, and other classes, plus on standardized tests.
One really important strain of research indicates that students are very capable of seeing a whole variety of learning environments as related and complementary. Students can relate what they learn outside, interacting with the natural world, back to what they learn in the traditional classroom, and vice versa.2
This is strong reinforcement for the type of work Prairie Rivers of Iowa does, making connections in the natural world with traditional in-class education. Rather than being an “extra” to be used only when more important instruction has been provided, outdoor education can be deeply connected to so many other content areas throughout the school day. The view of outdoor education as only a bonus field trip misses the point that such experiences can be critical for making in-class learning more concrete or for making complex ideas real to students.
Healthy soil and water, whether in outdoor classrooms adjacent to school buildings, in designated natural areas like parks and preserves, or simply in children’s hometowns, are critical for providing opportunities for students to experience nature in all its many “classrooms.”
2See Zandvliet, David B. (2012). Development and validation of the Place-Based Learning and Constructivist Environment Survey (PLACES). Learning Environments Research, 15, 125-140.