Enabling Environments: Outdoors - Get out!

Swedish science and outdoor education expert Professor Anders Szczepanski discuss the benefits of being outside with Annette Rawstrone
Professor Anders Szczepanski is founder and director of the National Centre for Outdoor Environmental Education (NCU) at Linköping University in Sweden. He is also a lecturer, researcher and author, and for the past 30 years has worked with pre-schools and schools, delivering training in science and outdoor education. His work has taken him around the world, including Europe, America and Asia.

NCU aims to increase the awareness and understanding of outdoor environments as an important part of, and a foundation for, learning. Within Sweden, it functions as a National Network for Outdoor Environmental Education, but it is also working to increase the Scandinavian and international exchange of teachers and students.

Q How do you define outdoor learning?

A It’s authenticity and authority to educate and learn in the context of the landscape – with first-hand experiences and using all the senses, such as taste, touch and smell. A landscape can be anything from natural to historical, it can be cultural, even an urban landscape can be used.

When children’s mindscapes meet the landscape, their learning is more holistic and integrated – it creates a ‘learnscape’. Children can learn a lot from simply being outside, when they understand that there is a soul in the soil, that there is a need for balance and harmony. The indoor and the outdoor learning environment complement each other.

Importantly, as John Dewey writes, children know by doing. Being ‘hands on’ connects their hands with their brains – and with all their senses. Every part of the curriculum can be taught in the pre-school yard. It’s important to integrate everything into nature – music, songs, stories, painting.

Q What are the benefits of being outside?

A A lot of research shows that the more time people spend outside, the more infection rates go down.(1) When children are healthier, teachers are too. This is clearly of benefit at government level – healthier children mean healthier staff, and less staff absence creates less strain on the tax and health systems.

The obesity bomb has also exploded and no-one heard the explosion. If current trends continue, by 2050 more than half of adults and a quarter of children in the UK will be obese. Children move more when they are outside and all movement is good for their bodies, and the body puts the brain in motion. More physical activity at school will help obesity rates to go down, and along with that we also see a drop in the incidence of bone weakness problems and diabetes.

Being outside makes children happier. Playing in mud can make their serotonin hormone levels go up, which is a contributor to the feeling of happiness.(2) So, dirty children are happy children.

It is also a less stressful environment. In Japan, they practise shinrin-yoku – or forest bathing – where they visit the forest for health benefits, even in pre-schools.(3) If you go outside and are exposed to the colours green – with the leaves and trees – and also blue – with the water and sky – then cortisol levels have been found to go down, which means that people experience less stress and can concentrate more.(4)

We know that the hippocampus shrinks under stress but that after ‘green therapy’ in gardens, and also after animal therapy, people can regain lost memory pictures. So, being outside is just good for the brain, it aids memory and learning.

Symptoms of ADD and ADHD have also been found to go down where there are high numbers of trees in the play area and pre-school yard.(5) In one study, exposure to nature reduced symptoms of ADHD in children threefold compared with staying indoors.(6) But it is not only children with a specific diagnosis who benefit. Increased contact with nature can reduce stress and aggressive behaviour in all children, and give them a greater sense of self-worth.(7)

If people have good access to green space they are 24 per cent more likely to be physically active. The research concludes that if the population were afforded equitable good access to green space, the estimated saving to the health service could be in the order of £2.1 billion per annum in England alone.(7)

The health costs will be very high if we don’t start making experience in nature part of our ordinary lives, and that needs to start in our education settings. The outdoors can be seen as a great outpatient department whose therapeutic value is yet to be fully realised. As William Bird said in 2004, ‘The outdoors is bursting with health benefits – it takes away stress, it increases physical activity, and it gets people meeting each other.’(6)

Q How can we encourage more outdoor learning?

A The Government should make an outdoor learning module mandatory on every UK teacher training course. Good teacher training is the key to delivering excellent outdoor learning. We also need to increase the requisites for open air education in terms of the curriculum. The Swedish pre-school curriculum states that children need to have experiences in the planned and wild environment, and in their curriculum for Grades 1–9 there are 35 different points which necessitate teachers using the extended classroom.

Children need to have proper areas to be outside, of course, so thought should also be given when building pre-schools and schools to look at the latest research and designs to enable natural school yards. We need school yards and grounds that take into consideration biodiversity, such as plants and trees; the topography, such as hills; there should be enough light, and possibly a small area of water.

Q What can early years practitioners do?

A Staff should show their head teachers the research and convince them that learning outdoors is vital. There should be a structure within the school daily timetable to allow for children to go outside – and in small groups, not 30 at a time.

Staff members then need to do their research and know the interesting places to go – such as where to find frogs, birds, or an ant nest. If they explore and use the landscape, the children will ask the questions, and then the pre-school teacher can provide the knowledge. The best research questions often come from five-year-old children.

Staff need to play games which encourage children to use their senses, such as blindfolding children and allowing them to bury their faces into the green moss so that they can smell it and feel it, have all their senses experience the mushroom mycelium that is so important for all trees to live. Take small groups of children on smell trails around flowers, or taste trails where they can sample different herbs. Learn to ‘read’ the landscape with your children.

Q Does technology have a place in outdoor learning?

A Augmented and virtual reality can now be used to do this in combination with reality, to combine hi-tech and high touch. Pokémon Go and geo-caching have shown that technology can get people outside, and teachers need to think outside the box.

Q Why do you refer to children as ‘stewards of the earth’?

A A Cornell University study found that children who play outside a lot before 11 to 12 years old tend to have a greater awareness of environmental issues and to think more about sustainability.(8) These children can go on to live a sustainable life, and in turn to help develop a country with a lot of possibilities for increasing sustainability.
As the saying goes: think local, act global. Children need to understand that what they do has an impact on the earth – that if the rainforest is damaged then that impacts elsewhere in the world. If children don’t know or have sensory experiences of their own local landscape, they can’t understand the issues facing the global environment.
Professor Szczepanski’s visit to the UK was sponsored by SCM Secure, whose portfolio includes a biometric cloud-based ‘learning journey’. The company is Swedish, with offices now in London. For more information on its Learning Management System, visit: www.scmsecure.com


  1. Blennow Met al (2004) inUgeskrift for Laeger,166 (36), 3,089-92
  2. www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0165178106000862, www.natureplayqld.org.au/article/why-playing-in-the-mud-is-more-than-just-fun
  3. www.dec.ny.gov/lands/90720.html
  4. www.deakin.edu.au/__data/assets/pdf_file/0004/310747/Beyond-Blue-To-Green-Literature-Review.pdf
  5. Taylor AF, Kuo FE and Sullivan WC (2001) ‘Coping with ADD: The surprising connection to green play settings’, Environment & Behavior, 33 (1), 54-77
  6. www.nationaltrust.org.uk/documents/read-our-natural-childhood-report.pdf
  7. www.naturalengland.org.uk/Images/TIN055_tcm6-12519.pdf
  8. Wells NM and Lekies KS (2006) ‘Nature and the Life Course: Pathways from Childhood Nature Experiences to Adult Environmentalism’, Children, Youth and Environments, 16 (1), 13


  • The National Centre for Outdoor Environmental Education, Linköping University, Sweden, https://old.liu.se/ikk/ncu?l=en
  • A publications list for Anders Szczepanski is at: www.ep.liu.se/publist/default.aspx?userid=andsz85
  • Gustafsson PEet al (2011) ‘Effects of an outdoor education intervention on the mental health of schoolchildren’, Journal of Adventure Education and Outdoor Learning, 12(1), 63-79. http://liu.diva-portal.org/smash/get/diva2:434923/FULLTEXT01.pdf
  • Fjortoft I (2001) ‘The Natural Environment as a Playground for Children: The Impact of Outdoor Play Activities in Pre-Primary School Children’, Early Childhood Education Journal,29 (2), 111-117
  • Wells NM (2000) ‘At Home with Nature, Effects of “Greenness” on Children’s Cognitive Functioning’, Environment & Behavior, 32 (6), 775-795
  • Wells NM and Evans GW (2003) ‘Nearby Nature: A Buffer of Life Stress Among Rural Children’, Environment & Behavior, 35 (3), 311-330