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Learning Outdoors and Student Outcomes — January 2021


Could you provide research on the relationship between learning outdoors/time in nature and student outcomes?


Following an established REL West research protocol, we conducted a search for research reports and resources on the relationship between learning outdoors, or learning in nature, and student outcomes. The sources we searched included ERIC, Google Scholar, and PsychInfo. (For details, please see the methods section at the end of this memo.)

We have not evaluated the quality of references and the resources provided in this response. We offer them only for your reference. Also, we searched for references through the most commonly used sources of research, but the list is not comprehensive and other relevant references and resources may exist. References are listed in alphabetical order, not necessarily in order of relevance. Access to the full articles is free unless indicated otherwise.

Research References

American Institute for Research. (2005). Effects of outdoor education programs for children in California. Author. Full text available from

From the abstract: “AIR conducted an evaluation to measure the impacts of week-long residential outdoor education programs for at-risk sixth graders in California. As described by California Assembly Bill (AB) Number 1330, Chapter 663, the Outdoor Environmental Education Program is designed to ‘foster stewardship of the environment and an appreciation of the importance of the wise use of natural resources.’ The program serves at-risk youth and underserved demographic groups. AB 1330 called for the California Department of Education (CDE) to administer an independent evaluation of the program to be conducted by February 1, 2005 to examine the effects of outdoor experiences on students’ behavior and learning. This report presents the findings from the AIR evaluation. This study focused on 255 sixth-grade students from four elementary schools who attended three outdoor education programs (also referred to as outdoor science schools) between September and November of 2004. The evaluation utilized a ‘delayed treatment design.’ Within participating elementary schools, sixth-grade children were divided, by classroom, into two groups. Approximately half of each school’s sixth grade (one or more classrooms) attended outdoor school between September and November of 2004 and served as the treatment group. The remaining sixth grade classrooms were scheduled to attend outdoor school after the study’s data collection period ended in December 2004, thereby serving as the control group during the study period. In this manner, the study utilized a treatment and control design without denying any child the opportunity to attend outdoor science school. The design provides a rigorous method to identify the outcomes associated with participation in the program.”

REL West note: Although this article was published in 2005, we include it here because of its relevance to the request.

Avci, G., & Gumus, N. (2020). The effect of outdoor education on the achievement and recall levels of primary school students in social studies course. Review of International Geographical Education Online, 10(1), 171–206. Full text available from

From the abstract: “The aim of this study is to determine the effects of the implementation of activities based on outdoor education in social studies teaching on students’ academic achievement and their level of knowledge recall. In the study, semi-experimental design with pretest-posttest control group was used. The study was conducted with the study group determined by selecting the appropriate sample. The study group for the 2018–2019 academic year was composed of two primary school fourth grade students, one from a public school (n=33) and one from a control group (n=31) in Buca district of Izmir province. During the application process, fourth grade social studies lesson ‘People, Places and Environments’ learning area subjects were covered for 6 weeks with outdoor education activities and outdoor teaching method, social studies lesson curriculum content and activities in control group. As a data collection tool, the ‘Academic Achievement Test’ created by the researcher within the scope of the primary school fourth grade ‘People, Places and circles’ learning area attainments was used as pre-implementation and post-implementation. In addition, the Academic Achievement Test was used as a persistence test to measure students’ level of recall of their knowledge 4 weeks after applications were finished. Statistical solutions of the data were made with descriptive statistics, t-test for independent samples, and two-factor ANOVA for mixed measurements. According to the findings, academic success and retention levels of the experiment group students who took outdoor education activities and outdoor education social studies courses were significantly higher than those of the control group students who performed courses according to the curriculum and activities of social studies courses in the classroom environment. As a result, it was determined that the implementation of outdoor educational activities in the teaching of social studies courses increased the success levels of the students and positively affected their level of recall their knowledge.”

REL West note: Although this is an international study, we include it here because of its relevance to the request.

Becker, C., Lauterbach, G., Spengler, S., Dettweiler, U., & Mess, F. (2017). Effects of regular classes in outdoor education settings: A systematic review on students’ learning, social and health dimensions. International Journal of Environmental Research & Public Health, 14(5), 485. Full text available from

From the abstract: “Participants in Outdoor Education Programs (OEPs) presumably benefit from these programs in terms of their social and personal development, academic achievement and physical activity (PA). The aim of this systematic review was to identify studies about regular compulsory school- and curriculum-based OEPs, to categorize and evaluate reported outcomes, to assess the methodological quality, and to discuss possible benefits for students. Methods: We searched online databases to identify English- and German-language peer-reviewed journal articles that reported any outcomes on a student level. Two independent reviewers screened studies identified for eligibility and assessed the methodological quality. Results: Thirteen studies were included for analysis. Most studies used a case-study design, the average number of participants was moderate (mean valued (M) = 62.17; standard deviation (SD) = 64.12), and the methodological quality was moderate on average for qualitative studies (M = 0.52; SD = 0.11), and low on average for quantitative studies (M = 0.18; SD = 0.42). Eight studies described outcomes in terms of social dimensions, seven studies in learning dimensions and four studies were subsumed under additional outcomes, i.e., PA and health. Eleven studies reported positive, one study positive as well as negative, and one study reported negative effects. PA and mental health as outcomes were underrepresented. Conclusion: Tendencies were detected that regular compulsory school- and curriculum-based OEPs can promote students in respect of social, academic, physical and psychological dimensions. Very little is known concerning students’ PA or mental health. We recommend conducting more quasi-experimental design and longitudinal studies with a greater number of participants, and a high methodological quality to further investigate these tendencies.”

REL West note: Although this is an international study, we include it here because of its relevance to the request.

Finn, K. E., Yan, Z., & McInnis, K. J. (2018). Promoting physical activity and science learning in an outdoor education program. JOPERD: The Journal of Physical Education, Recreation & Dance, 89(1), 35–39. Abstract available from and full text available for a fee from

From the abstract: “Outdoor education programs have been shown to have a positive effect on the educational, physical and emotional development of youth. They are increasingly being used to foster a sense of community in schools and to provide students with learning opportunities related to the environment. This article describes an integrated outdoor education program aimed at increasing physical activity and science knowledge among elementary school children in an economically disadvantaged urban community. Results from a study that was conducted showed that activity levels were significantly higher and sedentary time was significantly lower during the outdoor education program compared to the rest of the school day. Schools can utilize outdoor education programs to promote physical activity and improve science learning in elementary school children.”

Kuo, M., Browning, M., & Penner, M. L. (2018). Do lessons in nature boost subsequent classroom engagement? Refueling students in flight. Frontiers in Psychology, 8, 2253. Full text available from

From the abstract: “Teachers wishing to offer lessons in nature may hold back for fear of leaving students keyed up and unable to concentrate in subsequent, indoor lessons. This study tested the hypothesis that lessons in nature have positive—not negative—aftereffects on subsequent classroom engagement. Using carefully matched pairs of lessons (one in a relatively natural outdoor setting and one indoors), we observed subsequent classroom engagement during an indoor instructional period, replicating these comparisons over 10 different topics and weeks in the school year, in each of two third grade classrooms. Pairs were roughly balanced in how often the outdoor lesson preceded or followed the classroom lesson. Classroom engagement was significantly better after lessons in nature than after their matched counterparts for four of the five measures developed for this study: teacher ratings; third-party tallies of ‘redirects’ (the number of times the teacher stopped instruction to direct student attention back onto the task at hand); independent, photo-based ratings made blind to condition; and a composite index each showed a nature advantage; student ratings did not. This nature advantage held across different teachers and held equally over the initial and final 5 weeks of lessons. And the magnitude of the advantage was large. In 48 out of 100 paired comparisons, the nature lesson was a full standard deviation better than its classroom counterpart; in 20 of the 48, the nature lesson was over two standard deviations better. The rate of “redirects” was cut almost in half after a lesson in nature, allowing teachers to teach for longer periods uninterrupted. Because the pairs of lessons were matched on teacher, class (students and classroom), topic, teaching style, week of the semester, and time of day, the advantage of the nature-based lessons could not be attributed to any of these factors. It appears that, far from leaving students too keyed up to concentrate afterward, lessons in nature may actually leave students more able to engage in the next lesson, even as students are also learning the material at hand. Such ‘refueling in flight’ argues for including more lessons in nature in formal education.”

Kuo, M., Barnes, M., & Jordan, C. (2019). Do experiences with nature promote learning? Converging evidence of a cause-and-effect relationship. Frontiers in Psychology, 10, 305. Full text available from

From the abstract: “Do experiences with nature—from wilderness backpacking to plants in a preschool, to a wetland lesson on frogs—promote learning? Until recently, claims outstripped evidence on this question. But the field has matured, not only substantiating previously unwarranted claims but deepening our understanding of the cause-and-effect relationship between nature and learning. Hundreds of studies now bear on this question, and converging evidence strongly suggests that experiences of nature boost academic learning, personal development, and environmental stewardship. This brief integrative review summarizes recent advances and the current state of our understanding. The research on personal development and environmental stewardship is compelling although not quantitative. Report after report—from independent observers as well as participants themselves—indicate shifts in perseverance, problem solving, critical thinking, leadership, teamwork, and resilience. Similarly, over fifty studies point to nature playing a key role in the development of pro-environmental behavior, particularly by fostering an emotional connection to nature. In academic contexts, nature-based instruction outperforms traditional instruction. The evidence here is particularly strong, including experimental evidence; evidence across a wide range of samples and instructional approaches; outcomes such as standardized test scores and graduation rates; and evidence for specific explanatory mechanisms and active ingredients. Nature may promote learning by improving learners’ attention, levels of stress, self-discipline, interest and enjoyment in learning, and physical activity and fitness. Nature also appears to provide a calmer, quieter, safer context for learning; a warmer, more cooperative context for learning; and a combination of ‘loose parts’ and autonomy that fosters developmentally beneficial forms of play. It is time to take nature seriously as a resource for learning—particularly for students not effectively reached by traditional instruction.”

Tas, E., & Gulen, S. (2019). Analysis of the influence of outdoor education activities on seventh grade students. Participatory Educational Research, 6(2), 122–143. Full text available from

From the abstract: “It is thought that the results of teaching some of the subjects in science through outdoor education will be more positive. The purpose of this study is to find out the effects of activities done through outdoor education on students’ academic achievement, students’ thoughts about the activities and the permanence of information. Mixed research design was used in the study. Academic achievement test was prepared to collect quantitative data while a test consisting of open-ended questions in fully structured interview form was prepared for qualitative data. For the analysis of quantitative data, statistical analysis techniques such as average, frequency, percentage, standard deviation and Wilcoxon signed ranks test were used with the help of SPSS program. In qualitative analysis, the data were coded, common themes were formed with their categories and content analysis method was used. According to the results, it was found that outdoor activities increased students’ achievement and did not have a significant relationship with students’ recalling information. The results of the qualitative analysis showed that the students liked these activities and the activities were effective in understanding the subject and learning the concepts. In addition, it was found that the activities influenced the friendship between students positively. It was suggested for outdoor activities to be used in science teaching.”

REL West note: Although this is an international study, we include it here because of its relevance to the request.

Additional Organization to Consult

Children and Nature –

From the website: “We believe that the well-being of children and the wild places we love are inextricably linked. And while research tells us that regular time outdoors is essential for children’s healthy development, today’s kids are less connected to nature than ever before. We also know that longstanding systems of injustice have impacted the design and distribution of green spaces, and call for new policies informed by people who have been impacted by racism and systems of inequity. We are committed to strengthening efforts to advance equity in access to nature.”

REL West note: Children and Nature has two resources that are relevant to this request:

Lehson, J. (2021). Forget packets and worksheets: Watershed School keeps kids connected to nature, at home. Children and Nature. Full text available from

Louv, R. (2021). Our need for nature in the time of COVID. Children and Nature. Full text available from


Keywords and Search Strings

The following keywords and search strings were used:

[(“Learning in nature” OR “learning outdoors” OR “outdoor education”) AND (outcomes) AND (research)]

Databases and Resources

We searched Google Scholar and ERIC for relevant resources. ERIC is a free online library of over 1.6 million citations of education research sponsored by the Institute of Education Sciences.

Reference Search and Selection Criteria

When searching and selecting resources to include, we consider the criteria listed below.

  • Date of the Publication: References and resources published within the last 15 years, from 2006 to present, were included in the search and review.
  • Search Priorities of Reference Sources: Search priority is given to study reports, briefs, and other documents that are published and/or reviewed by IES and other federal or federally funded organizations and academic databases. Priority is also given to sources that provide free access to the full article.
  • Methodology: Priority is given to the most rigorous study designs, such as randomized controlled trials and quasi-experimental designs, and we may also include descriptive data analyses, survey results, mixed-methods studies, literature reviews, or meta-analyses. Other considerations include the target population and sample, including their relevance to the question, generalizability, and general quality. Priority is given to publications that are peer-reviewed journal articles or reports reviewed by IES and other federal or federally funded organizations. If there are many research reports available, we select those with the strongest methodology, or the most recent of similar reports. When there are fewer resources available, we may include a broader range of information. References are listed in alphabetical order, not necessarily in order of relevance.

This memorandum is one in a series of quick-turnaround responses to specific questions posed by educational stakeholders in the West Region (Arizona, California, Nevada, Utah), which is served by the Regional Educational Laboratory West at WestEd. This memorandum was prepared by REL West under a contract with the U.S. Department of Education’s Institute of Education Sciences (IES), Contract ED-IES-17-C-0012, administered by WestEd. Its content does not necessarily reflect the views or policies of IES or the U.S. Department of Education nor does mention of trade names, commercial products, or organizations imply endorsement by the U.S. Government.