Outdoor Time: Creating a Healthy Homeschool

How to Calm the Chaos and Enhance Learning

July 1, 2020 // by Laura Malone

When I hear the word chaos, I’m immediately transported back ten years ago to a time when Rusty and I only had our two girls, we were living out of two bedrooms at my parents’ house as we were searching for a new house to buy and I had just gone through a few weeks of morning sickness and then a heartbreaking miscarriage. I had been on an emotional rollercoaster, Rusty was wrapping up his football season (aka. I had been a single mom for a few months) and Christmas was only a couple weeks away.  The girls had been sensing the stress and took on the habit of arguing about everything. The winter cold had kept us cooped up indoors for most of the past couple of months and at the end of one particularly bad homeschool day of cleaning, re-cleaning and suffering through the whining and bickering, our nerves were shot. I had had enough. I marched up to the girls to set them straight and before I could speak, my three-year-old, Mary, put her hands on her hips, batted her big blue eyes and said, “Mama, this is chaos!” 

Yes, it was chaos. Not a day of chaos, but a season of chaos. We could all feel it, but it was my three-year-old that gave it a name, as if it were a disease that snuck up on us. She knew it didn’t belong. We all did, but how did we go about calming things down and bringing order back to our days? 

Chaos is like that. It’s a thief. We don’t welcome it into our homes, but it sneaks in from time to time. When the train is on the track and life is going as planned, it’s easy to see it coming from a distance and reroute. But when multiple circumstances go awry and derail us, chaos takes advantage. It spawns and seizes our world.  

What is it that causes chaos? It usually isn’t one bad situation that ushers it in. Chaos is a bunch of little things that have piled up and steal our joy. A messy house, children that fight, lack of focus during school, meltdowns during math, a husband that works long hours, the dinner that nobody wants to eat, whining, bad attitudes during chore time, fussy babies, etc. We can’t completely eliminate problems in our lives, but we can prevent some of them and even learn to cope with the stress they bring on, by creating habits and routines that serve as our guardrails.  

Discovering the Missing Link

After my daughter’s revelation, I laid in bed that night wondering what we could change. I thought back to my childhood and tried to recall my best memories, the times when I was carefree, simply soaking up life. The times when calmness and adventure lived simultaneously in my heart. The times when I was happiest. The times I would never regret.

And then the comforting memories flooded my mind as I remembered the cold green grass between my toes on the hot summer days. I remembered smashing buttercups on my cheeks and laughing at the yellow it painted on my friends’ faces. The barefooted bike rides to our secret hiding place by the creek and sitting among the clovers in the schoolyard searching desperately for the four-leaf clover because my friends didn’t believe I’d find it. These sweet memories quietly lulled my mind to rest and I suddenly realized what had been missing from our busy, chaotic, turbulent lives – the natural grounding of the great outdoors.

Laying there in the dark, I admired how nature has this magical grasp on us. And wouldn’t it? God created nature for His glory and our benefit. He designed our bodies and nature to work together. In order for our health to thrive and be whole, we need this missing link. We need nature and nature needs us. 

This had been an understood concept since the beginning of time because humans had always relied on nature and had no choice but to be outdoors for survival. It wasn’t until the last 200 years that life became primarily an indoor activity and we now have generations of children that believe dirt will make them sick, sweating is bad and running is more dangerous than fun.  According to the Child Mind Institute, “The average American child is said to spend 4 to 7 minutes a day in unstructured play outdoors, and over 7 hours a day in front of a screen.” 

Never be within doors when you can rightly be without.

– Charlotte Mason

Negative Effects of Inadequate Outdoor Time

So, what does this do to a body that was created to be outdoors? The lack of oxygen given by fresh air, the lack of vitamin D from sunlight, the inability to play hard and use up the energy they get from their food and the lack of calmative sensory stimuli all enable stress to compound and the result is a very cranky, unfocused, inattentive, hyper, ticking time-bomb for a child (or parent) that gets sick every time a virus blows their way.  Does this sound familiar?

In addition to inducing poor learning and behavior issues in our children, Richard Louv, who wrote Last Child in the Woods said, “As the young spend less of their lives in natural surroundings, their senses narrow, and this reduces the richness of human experience.” A perfect example of this is the negative effect that staying indoors is having on children’s eyes. Doctors are reporting a myopia epidemic among children because their bodies are adapting to primarily using their eyes for short distance sight. The distances from one wall to another inside our homes and from our couch to our smart phones or tablets do not provide the eye muscles with adequate exercise necessary for long distance sight.  So, the muscles weaken and cease functioning. Regularly spending time outdoors naturally exercises the eye muscles used for long distance sight and stimulates all of our senses, keeping them in good working order to provide us with the ultimate enjoyment of the life God has given us. 

Other negative effects of inadequate outdoor time that doctors claim are on the rise include increased obesity and depression, disrupted circadian rhythm which leads to sleep issues, increased inattention, focusing and memory problems, weakened immune system which leads to diseases and infections, increased irritability as well as decreased social health and energy levels.

These facts may be surprising at first, but doesn’t this all make sense? We see what happens when we remove an animal or plant from its natural environment. The turtle that we bring home from the pond dies after a week or two if it’s not provided with the necessities of its natural environment. And the same is true for trees and plants. Last summer, I moved several plants to the front room of my house which gets far less sunlight than their previous location. After about one month, they were all pale and droopy. They were suffering, not thriving. As soon as I replaced them to the sunnier room, they slowly regained their strength and looked healthy again. 

Facts about listening to birdsong while learning

Changing vs. Coping

We’re living in a time where we’ve been unhealthy for so long, it’s our norm. For today’s generation of parents, it’s all we’ve known. We accept the constant bad attitudes, illnesses, hyperactivity, focusing problems and outbursts from our children because all the professionals are telling us it’s normal behavior. Let’s stop and think about this.  Aren’t our mother instincts telling us otherwise? Do we really believe this is how God intended for our families to operate when He set this all in motion? I don’t.

The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy; I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full. - John 10:10

In today’s world, our bodies are like a puzzle we’ve been working on for years, but there are these annoying missing pieces and the puzzle can’t be complete without them. If we just look under the table and dig around a bit instead of giving up and asking the professionals how to cope with an unfinished puzzle, our body puzzle would be a whole, beautiful masterpiece to be enjoyed. Isn’t that what we all want for our families? I believe healthy families make happy homes and happy homes glorify God.

Benefits of Outdoor Time

Some of the world’s greatest thinkers were impacted by spending time in nature. 

  • Henry Wadsworth Longfellow claims that after a traumatic childhood due to the loss of both parents, nature is what kept him in good mental health. He is said to have walked about 180K miles in his lifetime while composing the poems we admire today.
  • Aristotle did much of his thinking and teaching while walking outdoors.
  • Thomas Jefferson and Henry David Thoreau both walked outdoors regularly to think and clear their minds.
kids by the fire

Enhanced Learning

Studies are consistent in proving that spending time in nature has many cognitive benefits. This means optimal brain function, which leads to enhanced learning for our children! Here are some correlations scientists are seeing between adequate outdoor time and learning:

  • Cognitive Benefits – 
    • Boosts creativity. Studies show a 50% increase in creativity after just a few days of consistent outdoor exposure. A few creative inventions that were inspired by humans observing the outdoors are airplanes, flippers, sonar, submarines, the bullet train, velcro and water filters.
    • Improves problem solving.  In one study by the American Institute for Research says that children who learn in an outdoor classroom improve science scores by 27%.
    • Helps ADHD by improving short-term memory. A study done at the University of Michigan compared two groups of students, one that walked through an arboretum and one that walked through city streets. A memory test was conducted afterwards and showed the group that walked in nature scored 20% higher. 
    • Helps ADHD by lengthening attention spans. One study showed a group of ADHD children that took a 20 minute walk in a park had attention benefits that “roughly equal to the peak effects of two typical ADHD medications”.
    • Improved test scores
    • Increased sense of wonder/curiosity which inspires learning that sticks
    • Increases mental energy and alertness
    • Reduces mental fatigue
    • Improves concentration
    • Gives us a source of inspiration

Get Your FREE “Outdoor Activity Ideas” Printable Here!

Mental/Physical/Spiritual Health

  • Psychological Benefits
    • The natural light boosts our mood within 15-20 min of exposure
    • Makes us happier and less pessimistic
    • Relieves anxiety and depression. Scientists say that just five hours outdoors per month can relieve depression.
    • Reduces aggression
    • Creates feelings of peace and well-being
    • Reduces stress. A walk in the park provides a 12% decrease in cortisol levels.
    • The evergreen aroma of pine and cypress contains mild sedatives.
  • Physical Benefits
    • Boosts our immune system. Dr. Milda Cosco says that environmental diversity enhances our immune systems.  Children that grow up in plant environments have a different skin microbiome than children who play on manufactured playgrounds. Also, children that grow up on farms have less asthma and allergies because they are in contact with a variety of microorganisms, plants and animals. In addition to this, the percentage of natural killer cells in our bodies increase after spending time outside. These cells are responsible for fighting infections and diseases such as cancer.
    • The colors, sounds, textures and smells are calming to our nervous system.
    • Decreases heart rate by 6% by simply walking in the park.
    • Long, deep nature immersions aid recovery from surgeries, PTSD and diseases
    • Our bodies create vitamin D from the sun which gives us energy and a strong immune system
    • Engages and exercises the senses  
    • Dirt has healing properties in its soil compounds and studies show that regular exposure to it lessens anxiety, increases serotonin and improves the brain’s problem solving functions.
    • Reduces inflammation caused by poor diet, injuries, etc.
  • Spiritual Benefits
    • The beauty and perfect order and design of nature leads us to worship the Creator
    • Inspires curiosity and discovery that helps us understand God’s character – His creativity, wisdom, compassion, power and love for us
    • We are humbled that the same God that created the vast, extraordinary universe also created us His image.

Nature is a revelation of God; Art a revelation of man.

Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

How Much Time is Adequate?

boys hiking

Research shows that getting 5 hours a month is the least amount required for improved learning and mental/physical health benefits. This can be worked out as roughly 20 minutes, several times a week. You could cram all 5 hours in on one Saturday afternoon and still get some benefits, but because of the positive effects on children’s learning and behavior, I believe it’s ideal to incorporate it into each day so that learning time is optimized. I love the outdoors and always feel so much better myself when we’ve been outside, so I do my best to plan for about 1 hr for 5 days a week (30 minutes in the morning and 30 minutes in the afternoon) for our family. 

Outdoor Time Chart
Click HERE to get your printable “Outdoor Time Chart”

Making It Work

There’s no magical formula for getting our families to want to go outside every day. You just do it. They might whine and complain initially. They’ll act bored and say they’re too hot or too cold, but over time they’ll grow to love it and look forward to it, especially if you stay positive and encourage fun, family bonding. When it’s consistent, their bodies will feel the benefits and begin to crave the fresh air and sunshine.

I do have a formula for getting it done, however. Here’s what works for us:

  1. Write it into the daily homeschool routine – Now it’s a commitment and expectation. If your circumstances change, be flexible and move it around, but do your best to get it done. 
  2. Educate the kids – Take a few minutes to teach them the benefits of being outdoors and the negative effects that staying inside has on our bodies, minds and behavior. If you have a child that struggles with attention or frustration in school, this is where you show them that you’re in this with them and you’re willing to try new things to help. 
  3. Go outside with them – I’ve noticed that if I go outside with my kids, they stay outside much longer than if I send them outside. Besides, if we’re telling them our bodies need nature to be healthy, they won’t believe us or they won’t care if we don’t participate ourselves.
  4. Follow-through & consistency – Just do it. It’s worth it. You could print out my Family Outdoor Time Chart and hang it on the fridge for motivation. Agree on a goal and a reward for when your family meets that goal then let the kids take turns putting a sticker on each day so they can see their progress. Before you know it, it’ll be a habit.
  5. Change things up to keep it fun and interesting – Your own yard is sufficient, but I suggest making a list of all the different park choices in your city and visit at least one a week to break things up and keep it fun. The more unpredictable the environment, the more interesting it is, which results in greater cognitive stimulation and growth. So, don’t be afraid to change outdoor locations often! Also, switch between organized activities (games, hiking, nature study) and free play (child chooses whatever they want to do). Keep my printable Outdoor Activity Ideas on hand for inspiration.
Get this Nature Journal HERE!

Conclusion

If we aim to raise a healthy homeschool family by optimizing our children’s learning while staying grounded in the turbulent times that are sure to come, we can’t ignore the powerful role of nature in our family’s lives. As we incorporate an Outdoor Time into our daily routine, we will see moods, attention, behavior, memory, creativity and problem solving skills improve. School will become more enjoyable for everyone and our boosted immune systems will enable us to spend more time learning and having fun and less time managing meltdowns and nursing children back to health throughout the year. 

If your family spends a lot of time outdoors, I’d love to hear your favorite activities and the impact it has had on your homeschool. Please share your thoughts in the comments section.

Hugs,

Laura

5 thoughts on “Outdoor Time: Creating a Healthy Homeschool

Add yours

  1. Laura, a fun game that I played with my sons was to find the ABC’s made up of things from nature. Example: the letter H found from fence posts or Y from branches in trees. It was a totally unique way of thinking which helped them both to be quite creative.

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