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Outdoor learning & play - increasing a child's ability to learn

Updated: Nov 10, 2020

Can teaching in the outdoors increase a child’s ability to learn, through enhanced motivation and improved memory function?


On average in the UK, a child of school age, spends 190 days a year, well over 1000 hours, within a formal learning environment. Of those hours, a significant percentage is spent within an indoor classroom. This essay discusses, within the areas of motivation and memory, whether the opportunity for a child to reach their optimum level of learning can be increased, when learning is delivered within an outdoor environment, and concludes that when the outdoors becomes a regular extension to the indoor classroom for children of school age within the UK and beyond, the potential for a child to become the best that they can be, is increased.

Motivation in learning

Abraham Maslow’s Theory of Human Motivation (1943, cited in Yeomans, J. & Arnold, C., 2006), suggests that motivation is significantly influenced by internal processes which in turn are affected by the external environment. The concept behind Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs (1954, cited in Marshall, P., 1999), is that each progressive ‘layer' of motivational need, including physiological, safety, love and belonging, self-esteem, cognitive and aesthetic, would need to be satisfied, if not mastered, before finally reaching the ultimate level of ‘self-actualisation’. Though Maslow concentrated his work on adults, this concept is used to motivate children’s learning within a school environment, and can be found with some degree of certainty within teaching and child development textbooks, including Psychology in Education, (2013) and Teaching, Learning and Psychology, (2006). Though pupils may not be expected to become their ultimate selves within their school lifetime, a school which addresses the development of the whole child, can strive to enable their pupils to be the best they can be, within their time spent in school.

A review into outdoor learning by Dillon, J. et al., (2006), found a recurring concern, that when students are placed in an outdoor learning environment, they experience emotional challenges which are not always recognised by teachers. These challenges may be linked to a perceived threat to a child’s basic, safety and self-esteem, the first three levels in Maslow’s Hierarchy, due to differing temperature thresholds, comfort zones and perceptions of safety and indeed threat. Children can become excitable, gain confidence and become sociable when outdoors, or in contrast, become withdrawn. Therefore, infrequent and irregular use of an outdoor learning environment, may be more disruptive than beneficial. However, establishing the outdoors as a frequent, regular extension to the classroom, may enable a child to regulate themselves to better cope and subsequently prosper.

Self-recognition of personal achievement increases self-esteem, an upper level of Maslow’s Hierachy of Needs. Gardener (1983), through his work on Multiple Intelligences, argued that achievement can be reached easier and potentially to a higher level if learning is delivered in a form most suited to a person’s preferred or dominant learning style or styles. The very nature of an outdoor learning environment offers an array of opportunity for learning material to be delivered in a variety of forms, particularly kinaesthetic and spatial learning, but also linguistic, auditory, mathematical-logic, naturalistic, interpersonal and intrapersonal, among the growing number of recognised intelligences. There will inevitably be people within a group who find an indoor environment more conducive to learning. Their intrapersonal intelligence may gain energy from a quieter, controlled learning environment, or benefit from recording information and capturing creativity in the written word.

Operant conditioning, a theory of motivation, was pioneered by Pavlov (1927), developed by Thorndike and later applied to humans by Watson (1920, cited in Jarrett, 2011). They studied the presentation of behaviour as a direct response to an external factor, such as dogs dribbling with the expectation of food. Watson’s research included an understanding that resulting behaviour was influenced by whether the expectation was deemed positive or negative. Skinner (1938, cited in Jarrett, 2011), improved the theory by adding reinforcement, a stimulus or event that increases the likelihood that the behaviour it follows will be repeated. Operant conditioning works in practice as part of people’s development and learning in both school and home. Within school, it is used to shape behaviour and increase potential for academic achievement, the positive expectation being praise and reward, and negative expectation being punishment, with constancy of school rules being the reinforcer. Operant conditioning techniques are mobile and if deep seated within a school approach to behaviour and learning, their advantages can be transferred to an outdoor learning environment.

The discussions in this essay, regarding motivation and learning, would suggest that if a balance between indoor and outdoor learning is reached, pupils can thrive on the comfort and security of the built environment, whilst benefiting from the fluidity and creativity of the active, changeable and stimulating outdoor environment, potentially leading to high level learning.

Cognitive memory function

Melton (1963), suggested that there were three stages of remembering: encoding, storage and retrieval. When selecting learning materials and methods, it is important not to overload the limited processing capacity of seven plus or minus one (Shiffrin & Nosofsky, 1994), or limited duration, approximately 2 seconds (Baddeley, 1997; Miller, 1956), of the working memory’s two sub-systems, the Visuo-Spatial Sketchpad, processing the visual and spatial information, and Phonological Loop, processing speech based information both in spoken and written form (Baddeley & Hitch, 1974). When multi-tasks are planned, dividing the task into information that can be shared between the two sub-systems, can lead to a more effective working memory, than when the multi-task overloads one sub-system.

For information to remain in the working memory, it needs to be rehearsed for the time it is required. When planning a learning session, it is essential to include higher level elaborate rehearsal, to ensure effective encoding to the Long Term Memory (Craik & Lockhart, 1972), to be aware that the required length of rehearsal is directly linked to the quantity of information being rehearsed (Hyde & Jenkins, 1973), and that encoding information in chunks (Miller, 1950), contributes directly to the efficiency of Long Term Memory recall.

Kolb (1981), proposed that learning is a process whereby knowledge is created and that knowledge results from a combination of grasping and transferring experience. In Tulving’s research (1982, 1983), he found that if the context in which a person learns is similar to the context in which they are required to retrieve the information, their memory recall function is more efficient. A variety of research has subsequently been carried out, including Grant et al. (1998), where various sensory experiences were attached to learning environments, followed by adding or taking away those experiences during testing. The research strongly underlines the important role sensory stimuli play, when transferring information to and recalling information from, the long term memory.

Outdoors, the number of readily available multi-sensory stimuli to accompany learning, and consequently act as a recall trigger, is beyond anything you might expect to find in an indoor classroom, suggesting it to be a superior learning environment when looking at context memory. There is however, an argument to suggest that based on context memory, learning outside may be detrimental to a child’s ability to recall information for a test back in school, where the same stimuli are not present. To improve recall in this situation, artificial stimuli could be added to the indoor test environment to simulate the outdoor learning environment. The ultimate solution to exploit the benefits of context learning, would be to twin outdoor learning with subsequent outdoor testing. A greater discussion around context memory, is whether learning should be just about passing a test. If not, then learning outside in a real life situations, surrounded by natural stimuli, and those same stimuli acting as spontaneous triggers for recall in what may be years to come, provides a strong argument for context memory in the outdoors to be an effective learning mechanisms for learning for life.

With evidence linking the location of the cerebellum, the area of the brain most associated with movement and learning, and the linked pathways to the parts of the brain associated with memory, attention and spatial perception (Strick et al., 2009), there is an argument in favour of movement and memory processing being connected. Various studies support the relationship between movement and memory (Desmond et al., 1997), and go as far as to suggest movement improves memory function. Greenough’s experiment (1991, as cited in Jenson, 1981), showed that rats exercised in enriched environments had a greater number of neuron connections than sedentary rats. Saklofske and Kelly’s experiments (1992, as cited in Jenson, 1981), proved that a brisk walk can elicit a state of arousal which in turn increases the heart rate, consequently producing positive brain chemicals. Carlos Salas (2011), found that students who went for a ten minute walk prior to a study period, recalled 25% more words correctly than those who sat still before the study period, and in a study looking at memory performance whilst walking Shafaer (2010), found evidence to suggest that memory performance was superior during the act of walking at a chosen rate, compared to those walking at a specified rate and those sitting down. Although in modern day teaching levels of movement have increased within the confines of a school building, Dolcort, (2000) and Slavin, (1994), (as cited in Jenson, 1981), state their astonishment that the dominant role of formal learning is still sitting and listening when evidence suggests benefits to the contrary, strengthening the argument that outdoors is a preferable learning environment. 


The discussions in this essay regarding memory and learning, make a strong argument for significantly increasing access to the outdoors for learning, particularly in secondary schools which offer even lower levels of outdoor access than primary schools.  Though learning for a test is deemed an essential technique in monitoring and tailoring a child’s learning, as well as demonstrating academic ability for purposes beyond school, learning for life is arguably more important.  With this in mind, outdoor learning is supported by the theory behind experiential learning and context memory, demonstrating significant benefits on the grounds of creating superior recall triggers for later life.  Increased memory function through movement is possibly the strongest argument in this discussion, proving that the sit, listen and write methods so commonly used in school, which span study periods of often over an hour a time in secondary schools, in no way exploit the benefits of movement in learning.  Evidence would suggest that by creating opportunities for young people to learn outdoors, interspersed throughout a school day, would significantly increase a child’s ability to learn.

The discussions in this essay regarding motivation and learning, would suggest that the outdoors as a learning resource, has the potential to be detrimental to a child’s motivation and consequently ability to learn, in the same quantities as it can heighten another child’s. It argues that the outdoor environment needs to become a regular and frequent extension to the classroom, where a child can take their sense of comfort and safety with them, and feel secure in the familiarity and constancy of expectation.  Once established, the combination of an outdoor and indoor classroom, can become a place where academic boundaries no longer exist and learning can be delivered in a multitude of learning styles to suit all intelligences. 

Taking into account the argument for a balance between the indoors and outdoors linked to motivation, and the argument for significantly increased outdoor learning linked to memory, this essay would conclude, that not only can teaching in the outdoors increase a child’s ability to learn, through enhanced motivation and improved memory function, it is essential that the outdoors becomes a regular extension to the indoor classroom for children of school age within the UK and beyond, if a child is to become the best that they can be. 

Future psychological research to further explore and potentially support the argument for increased outdoor learning, would be a study into the efficiency of recall, after a number of years, of information encoded using context dependent memory principles, during outdoor learning for life.  Also, research studying memory function efficiency, of both primary and secondary students, before and after a sustained increase in regular and frequent outdoor learning. 


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This essay was the first submitted to Derby University Psychology Dept in 2014, as part of my MSc in Behaviour Change (Environment and Conservation). Katherine Clarke.

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