By Emily Vertacnik '07
One of my favorite things about being a teacher is helping students to build a meaningful association with nature and the outdoors. I especially love to work with our youngest learners, where I often see being outside as having the biggest impact. Exposing children to an outdoor, play-based curriculum has many positive benefits. Not only does it incorporate cognitive, social, emotional, physical, and moral development, it also plants a seed of awareness and appreciation for nature. But perhaps more importantly, it allows children to gain a deeper level of understanding of the world around them, and their place in it. Below I share a few of my favorite reasons for why parents should get their kids outside―no matter what the weather is like!
1. Being outside fosters their natural curiosity
Kids are naturally very curious, and being outside is a wonderful way to expose them to a variety of sights, sounds, tactile feelings—even tastes—because they don’t realize they’re trying new things. Of course, some children don’t want to touch sticky tree sap or a slimy slug, and they are never forced to, but they will almost always watch with rapt attention as another friend tries. Kids’ brains are so sponge-like at this age, and as they get exposed to the outdoors they are learning to make sense of the world.
2. Exposure to new experiences builds confidence
Whether climbing over a fallen log, correctly identifying a bird call, holding a wriggling worm, or jumping in a giant puddle, being outdoors gives children ample opportunities to try new experiences and test their boundaries. Not only does this improve their physical capabilities, it builds self confidence.
3. Students learn empathy and responsibility
One of the first things we learn in outdoor education classes at USM is how to be a good steward of our campus. That means not pulling bark off trees, not feeding wildlife, and not littering. As the students get older, they tackle more complex issues like utilizing sustainable resources, maintaining diverse habitats on our 125-acre campus, and reducing our landfill waste. These initiatives are often driven by student interest and curiosity, and result in deep learning and understanding. From an early age, students learn to be good stewards of our natural resources and gain empathy in the process.
4. Being outside builds resilience
Being outside means being open to some degree of unpredictability. The weather can change quickly, grass can be surprisingly muddy or wet, footing can slip, bugs can appear―any number of unexpected events can occur. Being outside carries some inherent risk and exposes kids to uncertainty, which is an essential component to building resilience. When things don’t go as we planned, we’re challenged to pivot on the fly and discover that sometimes, when the unexpected happens, it yields even better results than we thought possible.
5. Being outside reduces stress
Scientists have long known that being outside in nature can alleviate anxiety, boost our mood, improve our concentration, and reduce cortisol—a stress hormone. Nature also boosts endorphin levels and dopamine production, which promotes happiness. When we’re outside, we ask the children to sit still and be mindful as they observe nature―what did they hear? Smell? Feel? This exercise helps to build awareness of our bodies and surroundings, and connect them with the outdoors.
6. Kids are more active outside
We know that kids are more active when they play outside than playing inside. Not only does being active outside help kids to “get their wiggles out,” it fosters a healthy mindset and a strong foundation as they get older.
I love to see the joy in a child’s face when they hold a wriggling worm for the first time, taste a tomato we grew in our classroom garden, or correctly identify a bird call. For me as a teacher there are so many reasons why it’s important to get kids outside, but for the students there’s really only one: it’s fun!
About Emily Vertacnik ’07
Emily Vertacnik is a USM graduate from the Class of 2007, and currently serves as the school’s Preschool outdoor education teacher. She has a bachelor’s from Milwaukee Institute of Art and Design and master’s in education from Concordia University.