Other teachers rock. At a research conference for STEP graduates this past Friday, I was extremely lucky to attend a talk given by my classmates that was catchily titled The Hills Are Alive with the Sound of Learning: Science Education and the Outdoors. While I was there, I learned some unexpected things about the link between the outdoors and creativity that could have direct consequences on how we teach in a wide variety of subjects.
Here’s what I learned: Yet again, science has proved something John Muir in his infinite wisdom would never have thought about twice. When surrounded by nature and removed from technology, humans score higher on tests for creativity. Research has shown that even small doses of natural environment, even the view outside your window or a glimpse of a picture of nature, have the power to relax and restore us, and by extension enable us to focus our attention and innovate. To optimize the benefit, scientists have observed that after three days in the wilderness without technology, our relaxation peaks, giving us the cognitive rest for future imaginative endeavors.
As for why the outdoors fosters creativity, the research is less clear. Personally, I thought that Jonah Lehrer began to touch on it in a recent Wall Street Journal article when he described being in nature as exploring “those parts of the world that weren’t designed for us.” Perhaps being in such a foreign environment helps us step outside ourselves, gaining a new level of perspective about the world and our lives. As I discussed in the last post, taking perspective is a major cognitive component for creative thinking.
Bringing the Outdoors to School
With this research about the relationship between the outdoors and creativity in mind, what can teachers do to capitalize? Camping trips and programs like Outward Bound are a great start if there are funds, but how about if you’re a classroom teacher and there is no budget for a fantastic multi-day outdoor educational experience like Walker Creek Ranch, where I spent my first night away from mom in fifth grade and leaned about hawks and cow pats? What about if students can’t be absent from their other classes?
One: This one might seem a little silly, but if pictures of nature relax students in a way that can encourage a creative mind. One easy strategy can be to put up pictures of wildlife and the wilderness in your classroom.
Two: Plan single-period activities that engage students in content that can be learned outside. Not only will students benefit simply by being outdoors, the curiosity that nature encourages in us can be harnessed to encourage inquiry, close observation, and exploration.
Science – Lessons outside may involve launching rockets to teach about the physics of falling objects, or studying the effect of seasons on a tree to learn about photosynthesis. I had one physics teacher use a concave mirror to burn a hole in the cover of my graphing calculator: it was cool, but maybe a bit risky.
Math – For inspiring student curiosity in geometry in particular, the possibilities are endless! I do remember a neat tree-trunk measuring activity in an article in TIME on Finnish education.
History – You can take students out into nature to explore how the physical environment could have affected history in your area. In California, for example, you could talk about the history of water – why are there lawns in LA if there is no fresh water source?. The class could study the planning of urban parks, or even how the American view of nature has changed from the dark wild of the Puritan era to the19th century concept of nature as a spiritual cathedral (think Yosemite). On the east coast in particular, it may be a good way to introduce early American history.
English – the outdoors could be a laboratory for examining anything from what the Romantic poets meant when they wrote about the sublimeness of nature to the effect on writing style of being outdoors in different seasons.
Three: If you cannot go outside during the class period because of the neighborhood or time constraints, it may also be possible to assign homework that requires students to spend time outside during the evening or over a weekend. Activities that ask students to observe, draw, or experiment outdoors have the power to ignite student curiosity and encourage students to think creatively not only as they complete their work but when they come in for class the next day.