Study Shows Student Concentration Improves After Outdoor Lessons

The Incredible Journey makes students into water drops traveling through the water cycleThe Incredible Journey, often conducted outdoors, makes students into water drops traveling through the water cycle Some educators assume that going outside to learn—whether for Project WET or any other learning activities—will lead to distracted, amped-up students once the outdoor lessons are concluded and the kids are back in the classroom. However, a study reported in the journal Frontiers in Psychology earlier this year suggests that worry may be unfounded.

“Teachers hoping to offer lessons in nature may hesitate for fear that the experience will leave kids bouncing off the walls and unable to concentrate afterward,” study author Ming Kuo, a University of Illinois natural resources and environmental sciences professor, explained in a January press release from the University of Illinois. “We found just the opposite, however: Classroom engagement was significantly better for students after lessons in nature than after lessons in the classroom.”

Satterfield says that whole-body movement and other engaging teaching methods are critical for retention and comprehensionWhole-body movement and other engaging teaching methods work well for outdoor lessons Kuo conducted the study, “Do Lessons in Nature Boost Subsequent Classroom Engagement? Refueling Students in Flight,” with Matt Browning, another University of Illinois professor who teaches recreation, sport and tourism, and Milbert Penner, of the Cold Spring Environmental Studies Magnet School in Indianapolis. The study was conducted at the magnet school.

According to the press release, the study found that “third-graders who spend a class session in a natural outdoor setting are more engaged and less distracted in their regular classroom afterward than when they remain indoors.”

The effect “was large and occurred week after week, regardless of teacher expectations,” the press release noted, adding that the study “carefully matched lessons presented indoors and outdoors and controlled for teacher expectations, teaching style, time of day, week of semester and other factors that might have contributed to the differences observed.”

The study found that after a lesson in nature, “teachers were able to teach for almost twice as long without having to interrupt instruction to redirect students' attention.”

“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,” the study noted. “Such ‘refueling in flight’ argues for including more lessons in nature in formal education.”

Students participating in the Aqua STEM program in ArizonaThe study argues that learning in nature may actually leave students more able to engage in the next lesson Kuo said in the press release that she hopes the study “will encourage teachers to experiment with outdoor lessons.”

Many Project WET lessons are designed to be conducted outdoors, and still others are easily adaptable to an outdoor setting. Some outdoor favorites from Guide 2.0 include “Rainy Day Hike”, “The Long Haul” and “Macroinvertebrate Mayhem.” We’d love to hear what Project WET activities you love to do outside! Send an email to and tell us what works for you.

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