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Curiosity and Risk-Taking Increase When Children Are Outside

A new survey finds benefits to outdoor education.

Key points

  • A study on an outdoor education class assessed self-reliance, self-regulation, curiosity, risk-taking, motor skills, and connection to nature.
  • Observations of students, parental surveys, and interviews with the students were all included to enhance validity.
  • Children scored highly across several of the categories, so it will be important to compare them to a sample who have not attended these classes
Cara DiYanni
Source: Cara DiYanni

In a world where technological distractions abound, recess is being cut or reduced, parents are focusing mostly on structured activities to build their children’s resumés, and children are playing less frequently outside, opportunities to participate in activities that take place outdoors and educate children about the importance of nature are more important than ever.

Playing outdoors leads to countless benefits, including, but definitely not limited to, improvements in overall behavior and social skills. Outdoor play also leads to increases in physical activity, which in turn leads to fewer health complaints.

In my last article, “Benefits of an Outdoor Education Class,” I discussed how two student research assistants of mine visited an outdoor education program, the Nature at Heart School, for six weeks in the fall of 2022. The students observed seven child participants in a nature-based learning class. In particular, they were interested in observing behaviors that demonstrated self-reliance, self-regulation, curiosity and risk-taking, motor skills, and appreciation of and connection to nature.

In order to enhance the validity of our study, we also included parental surveys and interviews with the children. The surveys and interviews included questions designed to assess the same five categories listed above. We distributed one survey to the parents before the class began meeting, and another one at the end of the six-week session. The surveys were nearly identical, with the exception that the post-survey asked a few questions about how the parents felt about the contributions of the Nature at Heart class to their children’s development in the areas of self-reliance, self-regulation, and other categories.

Cara DiYanni
Source: Cara DiYanni

For all questions on the parent survey, scales ranged from one to six, where one indicated a low/infrequent rating, and a six indicated a high/frequent rating. Questions meant to tap into the child’s self-reliance included, “Rate the frequency with which your child asks for help with academic/household tasks” (two separate questions), “Rate your child’s ability to self-entertain,” and “Rate your child’s/you comfort level with (your child’s) solitary exploration in new situations” (two separate questions).

The survey asked similar questions to assess self-regulation, curiosity and risk-taking, motor skills, and appreciation of/connection to nature.

For the interviews, children were presented with a Likert scale of six smiley faces to choose from in response to each question, ranging from negative to positive. Questions to assess self-reliance included, “How much do you like playing alone?” “When you go somewhere without your parents, do you find it more scary or more fun?” and “How much do you like exploring by yourself?” Similar questions measured self-regulation, curiosity and risk-taking, and relationship with nature.

The findings from the parental surveys and child interviews were closely aligned with one another, and found the highest scores in the curiosity and risk-taking and appreciation of/connection to nature categories. Scores from these measures were most similar to observations in the categories of self-regulation, motor skills, and appreciation of/ connection to nature. Because there seemed to be discrepancies between observations and child/parent-report for the other two categories (self-reliance and curiosity/risk-taking), we will be revisiting our behavioral/observation measures for these categories when we return to observe the children in an upcoming winter class session.

Cara DiYanni
Source: Cara DiYanni

We noticed that across many of the measures, the children had exceptionally high scores in a lot of the categories, but they did not differ significantly from the start of the class in September and its conclusion at the end of October. One strong possibility for why is that the children have already reaped the benefits of taking these types of classes from having participated in previous sessions (all seven children had attended the class at least twice before the fall 2022 session). As mentioned above, the children scored highly across the majority of the areas using multiple measures.

In order to assess this possibility, this spring, we will recruit a sample of children with very similar demographics, but who have never attended the Nature at Heart School. We will assess them across these same five categories, and see whether or not they differ from their peers who have been taking outdoor education classes.

Our hypothesis is that the Nature at Heart Sample will be higher in self-reliance, self-regulation, curiosity and risk-taking, motor skills, and/or appreciation of/connection to nature. If this is indeed the case, it will serve as further evidence that the more we get our children outside, the more we allow their curiosity to flourish, and the more we allow them to learn about nature, connect to nature, and take risks in nature, the better off they will be.

A special thanks to Diamond Diaz, Cece Cream, and the teachers and families at Nature at Heart School without whom this study would not have been possible.

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