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Talk about fresh air isn't just hot air

pedagogy | Published in TESpro on 2 November, 2012 | By: Michael Shaw

An enduring cliche in British dramas about disaffected youth is the scene where they visit the countryside. Suddenly, the transformative power of the landscape takes hold, and the teenagers’ daily troubles shrink in the face of eternal nature.

One of the few films to tear this convention apart is Trainspotting. In it, the trip to the countryside ends with the protagonist yelling that “all the fresh air in the world won’t make any fucking difference”.

Cynics might be tempted to repeat that line when faced with the more ardent supporters of outdoor learning. The benefits they claim for it can seem woolly, overblown or borderline magical. Given a choice between ensuring a class can read and spending an hour on a ramble saying “Hello trees, hello flowers”, it would be understandable if teachers wanted to give the nature walk a miss.

Yet some of the research from the past decade on the impact of greenery on young people is genuinely extraordinary.

One study last year, reported in TESpro (“Why the grass should be greener”, 19 October), found that taking pupils with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder on 20-minute walks in a city park had a comparable impact on their behaviour to giving them Ritalin.

Other studies have succeeded in factoring out the class element - in one case by randomly assigning pupils to live in high-rise buildings with varying amounts of greenery nearby - and still found a correlation between access to nature and improved behaviour and results.

Even in urban areas, getting pupils outside or adding some greenery around the site appears to have an impact. So the benefits are not just of relevance to rural schools or those with handy glades nearby.

This may seem an opportunity for another moan about how the curriculum prevents such activities. But one of the few things we have been told about the planned primary curriculum is that it will introduce a greater emphasis on nature in science.

And opportunities for outdoor learning should not just be limited to primary pupils, either. As the research indicates, fresh air does make a difference, after all.

Michael Shaw is editor of TESpro @mrmichaelshaw.

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