An extraordinary amount of commentary is emerging around Pokémon Go. This augmented reality mobile app, which encourages people to find digital monsters who appear as if they are in the same location as the user, has made a significant impact on children and their relation to the outdoors. The game has been lauded as being wildly successful in encouraging children to venture beyond their doorsteps, although there have been occasional well publicised problems. In this regard, it has surpassed the efforts of many educators and parents in reconnecting children with the outdoor environment.
There is good evidence to demonstrate that we’ve failed to instil passion in our children for the outdoors. Children across the globe are spending less and less time outside. A recent report by the UK government suggests that one in nine children have not set foot in any natural environment in the past year. In South Korea, an average child can expect to spend just 34 minutes a day outdoors. Similar research can be found throughout industrialised economies.
For children, being outdoors connects them to nature, encouraging them to be environmentally engaged and promotes psychological wellbeing. It also necessitates physical activity, helping to tackle one of the great public policy challenges faced by many Western governments: childhood obesity.
A recent study from the UK’s Plymouth University went further still, warning that a loss of exposure to the natural environment was “hampering children’s social skills as well as risking stifling their long-term physical, emotional development and wellbeing”. The academics behind the study concluded that the league table driven focus on academic attainment has led to teachers feeling under pressure to keep on studying inside the classroom rather than exploring the world outside. But in the long run, this was proving detrimental to young people’s development.
I agree and passionately believe that outdoor experiential education needs to be thought of as essential to a child’s formal education. While the pursuit of those subjects considered “academic” in its purest sense remain critical to a well-rounded education, schools need to be more than classroom-based exam factories. They need to encourage a sense of wonderment and awe in the world, and instil in students a sense of duty to make the world a better place.
In this digital age, experiential learning has become more important than ever. Many people receive tailored information through their devices, never getting a chance to see the imperfect world that we live in. How we learn about the real world versus how we experience the real world can often be completely different.
The students at my organisation, Nord Anglia Education, are in a privileged position. We have developed an expeditionary curriculum that sees over 1,000 students from around the world this year travelling to Tanzania to take part in our community service programme. During this time, children from across our 43 schools work to rebuild local schools and learn how to develop sustainable farming techniques to provide fresh fruit and vegetables to the surrounding community. The students spend this time outdoors, experiencing another culture and learning skills that they will carry with them throughout their life.
It is our view that experiential learning through programmes like this allow students to interact with real world problems and issues that are difficult to simulate in many classrooms. Our expeditions promote and develop skills that are not taught by many curriculums but hold great value for our students in their future lives such as flexible thinking, resourcefulness, resilience and much more.
Unfortunately, not all children are afforded such experiences. As a society, we should always think about how we can promote outdoor experiences in children’s day-to-day teaching. The rise of school gardens around the world, and in our schools, is just one example of how this can be achieved. Equally, school field trips provide opportunities to enhance learning outside of the classroom helping young people apply theory in the real world. The critical point is ensuring that teachers link outdoor activity to learning outcomes so that they aren’t viewed as nice to have but instead a critical component of students’ education.
Schools should be broadening the horizons of their students, and opening their eyes to the world, its cultures and its people. It’s only by taking students out of the classroom that we can excite an interest and passion in the natural environment but also enhance their learning across the board. However they are getting outside - whether through Pokémon Go, field work, or other initiatives - we know that outdoor learning provides significant benefits to young people and their personal development.