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Taking the Curriculum Outside: Attention Restoration Theory

Will a walk through nature help kids learn? Anne McIlroy, Science Reporter at the Globe and Mail reports that, "Studies suggest that interacting with nature can help children pay attention, motivate them to learn and improve both classroom behaviour and scores on standardized tests. Neuroscientists and psychologists are investigating why nature is good for young brains and how being around trees and shrubs helps recharge the circuitry that children use to focus on a page of fractions or a spelling test."

According to Rachel and Stephen Kaplan's Attention Restoration Theory (ART) there is evidence that there are at least two types of attention. One type is consciously directed attention and another is involuntary or effortless attention. When kids do math functions or when adults write reports, they are using consciously directed attention. Another type of attention is involuntary attention when a person is captured by something surprising that happens out of the blue. University of Michigan brain scientist Marc Berman believes that by engaging the involuntary system, the self directed-attention system can rest and recover. By being in the natural world people are able to switch to another restorative system. He says nature offers a “soft fascination." While it engages, it is not totally absorbing. Nature provides the peaceful environment to recharge that a busy street does not. Berman in a recent experiment found that undergraduates fared better on attention and memory tests after walking in an arboretum compared to walking through busy downtown Ann Arbor, Michigan. To learn more he is using brain imaging. Frances Kuo, of University of Illinois, is undertaking a study that includes 470 schools and half a million students. The school yards are being assessed to evaluate if children schools with more greenery score higher on standardized tests. According to initial work Kuo reports that the findings are promising.

Students 3-11 at the Coombes CE Primary school in England spend half of their time outside during the school year. The school grounds include pathways, ponds, gardens and two labyrinths. Sue Humphries who is now retiring transformed the grounds over four decades into an outdoor classroom.
“It is important to raise children with other species, with fruits, flowers and gardens so they can plant and grow and understand something about the cycle of nature. ...We owe the world this as well as the children.” says Humphries. (McIlroy, Young Minds/The call of the Wild, Nov 13, 2010)
Learn more in the video below and on the Coombes Website.

For an interesting resource on learning outside the classroom, see the UK's Learning Outside the Classroom.

In 2006 the organization created its Learning Outside the Classroom Manifesto with these goals:
  • To improve training and professional development opportunities for schools and the wider children and young people's workforce;
  • To provide all young people with a wide range of experiences outside the classroom, including extended school activities, integrated and targeted youth support, early years work and one or more residential visits;
  • To better enable schools, local authorities and other organizations working with young people to manage activities safely and efficiently;
  • To make a strong case for learning outside the classroom, so there is widespread appreciation of the unique contribution these experiences make to young people’s lives;
  • To provide easy access to information, knowledge, expertise, guidance and resources;
  • To offer learning experiences of high quality;
  • To identify ways of engaging parents, carers and the wider community in learning outside the classroom.
The site includes guidance, modules, case studies and resources.

Next up, Designing Learning Spaces