Take it outside: why teenagers need a daily fix of nature

Posted on 11th May 2018

In an article for TES, Feline Charpentier, Teacher of Outdoor Work at Bedales School, looks at the growing body of evidence in support of schools taking education outside.

Some neuroscientists are convinced that exposure to nature can aid the brain, but secondary students are rarely led into the fresh air. Studies have found that participants who ‘bathe’ in nature, as opposed to urban environments, display, among other things, benefits with regard to the production of stress hormones, blood pressure, heart rate, sympathetic nerve activity (the system that engages our fight-or-flight response), anxiety and mood.  

Some of these benefits have been detailed by Florence Williams in her book The Nature Fix: why nature makes us happier, healthier and more creative. Williams structures the book around the idea of engaging each of our senses, in what Tim Beatley, professor of sustainable communities at the University of Virginia, terms a ‘nature pyramid’. The big part at the bottom of the pyramid, much like a food pyramid, is daily ‘normal’ doses of nature, such as watering our potted plants or walking through a park to work: the essentials that we need to keep us at a baseline every day. The middle part of the pyramid is weekly, or less regular, larger doses, such as gardening or work outside: beneficial and enriching. The tip of the pyramid is more one-off, bigger trips to the ‘wilderness’.

Says Feline: “In our modern culture, most teenage students are only getting the tip of the pyramid, the annual ‘camp out’ or bushcraft weekend, if they are lucky. But it is the regular, integrated time in the outdoors that Florence argues is the more beneficial – the one with the greater long-term effects. Our younger children are now getting more of this through forest schools. Why not our older students?”

It can be difficult for schools to spend money on outdoor projects when there is not enough cash for the nuts and bolts of daily operation. Nonetheless, ever-more school farms and outdoor classrooms are springing up, as well as new examples of schools taking their education into the wilderness, despite the challenges. There are also lots of ways for schools to introduce regular, bottom-of-the-pyramid, timetabled sessions in which students can benefit from time spent learning in, and from, the outdoors without wholescale change or budget shifts, whether urban or rural.

Feline concludes:  “The potential is limitless, it just requires the inclination and some imagination. The evidence is there and we should use it as the impetus to make a change.”

The full article can be read on the TES website here (subscription may be required). 

TES | Feline Charpentier | Bedales Outdoor Work | Florence Williams | Tim Beatley