Environmental Education

Promoting Outdoor Learning in Urban Settings

Teachers can create meaningful outdoor learning experiences even if they don’t have easy access to a wilderness space.

February 23, 2023
SeventyFour / iStock

It’s a warm fall day, and a trio of students are bent over a carpet of red, orange, and gold leaves at their feet. They carefully pick through the pile and compare each leaf to the sketches they’ve already made, taking note of the curves and shape of each one. Their goal is to collect as many unique leaves as they can to support the building of a class tree identifier, but before they can complete their sketches,  a large American crow lands in the tree, calls out, and distracts them.

The three students sit quietly, not wanting to disturb the recent arrival, but the bird takes off when a garbage truck goes barreling by its perch. The students get back to work— scooping up as many leaves as they can from their corner of 49th Avenue in New York City. 

When we think about learning outdoors, scenes like the one described aren’t always the first things that come to mind. However, where students live or where their school is located shouldn’t prevent us from providing them with experiences learning outside the classroom, especially given the universal benefits.   

Exposure to the Natural World Has a Positive Effect on Learning

Thanks to a preponderance of recent research along with the experiences of teachers who have taken the leap themselves, the benefits of spending time learning outdoors are widely accepted. Students who learn outdoors perform better on standardized tests, are more engaged and motivated to learn, and are more focused on their work even when back indoors. Exposure to the natural world is associated with lower levels of stress, lower anxiety, and better overall social and emotional health.

What is less well known is recent research that shows that even short-term exposures to the outdoors, sometimes called green breaks, have a positive impact on academic outcomes. A brief stroll in an outdoor environment or a short visit to a community garden can positively impact students’ attentiveness as well as their working memory. This is of particular interest to the teachers of students who live in places such as urban centers, where access to green space might be more limited. Full days spent in rolling hills or forests aren’t necessary for students to experience the benefits of learning outside.  

Even within a concrete jungle like New York City, opportunities for learning outdoors are readily available, because no matter where you live, the natural world exists around you. In addition to the 14 percent of the city that is parkland and 10,000 acres of forest, small-scale opportunities for learning are around every corner and street as most residents live within a 10-minute walk of a park of some kind.

As I explored this further, I was very lucky to connect with the NYC Urban Park Rangers who have created a learning hub with a wealth of resources that can be valuable to anyone living in any city across the globe. Some of the site’s highlights include the following:

  • An expansive urban wildlife curriculum with lessons for K–12 students focused on topics like animal adaptations, observing wildlife, and virtual programs about the city’s urban white-tailed deer population. 
  • A K–8 curriculum guide aligned to STEM standards that details the story of the city’s water supply and the importance of water conservation. 

While these resources are specific to New York City, they can be useful entry points for exploration anywhere. But don’t limit yourself just to this small list. No matter where you live, check to see if your own city’s park district has resources as well. Cities like Chicago and Portland have also developed programs for their communities, so check out yours as well. If you don’t happen to find any, consider joining activities like the City Nature Challenge that can be completed anywhere in the world! 

In addition to the resources you find that can be used in an urban environment, you might consider other ideas to get yourself and your students started.   

Find Everyday Elements to Elevate

How do your students encounter nature in their everyday lives? Do they cut across a grass lawn on their way to school? Do the storm drains that fill during a rainstorm empty into a river or bay? How many trees dot the street around their school? All of these factors provide opportunities for teachable moments and can turn classroom knowledge into authentic understanding.  

During one of its recent citywide greening initiatives, the NYC Urban Park Rangers were able to create an entire unit of study around the trees planted in traffic circles and along city streets. Students used the trees just outside their apartment buildings to learn about everything from photosynthesis to the carbon cycle to the role that trees play in affecting citywide temperatures. Because of this unit, the trees that students see every day took on new significance and were seen as more than just places to lock up bikes. 

There’s No Such Thing as Too Small of a Space

Nature comes in all sizes, so don’t discount ideas for learning from small-scale natural elements and environments.  

In your habitat, no matter where you are, you are surrounded by wildlife. Whether it comes in the form of a bird sitting on a telephone wire, a squirrel running along a park fence, or a line of ants helping break down a dropped Popsicle, there are opportunities for students to observe, journal, and connect what they see outside to what they are learning in class about living things and how they meet their needs.

Exploring pocket worlds—having students zoom in and look for evidence of the natural world, even in their own bedrooms—can be extremely rewarding. Try challenging students to look in windowsills, planter boxes, or cracks in the concrete to help them identify examples of ecosystems or food chains. You can then reinforce those observations with in-class learning or discussions.

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