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A more outdoorsy classroom could help kids in school

A log-strewn outdoor classroom at UND could provide evidence that a connection to nature can help kids learn in school.

UND educational researchers have been gathering data to examine the influence of the University Childhood Learning Center's outdoor classroom, a rugged play area complete with natural features like logs, stumps and and open patches of dirt.

According to a university press release, the outdoor classroom was developed two years ago, with construction beginning in June 2015 to replace a more familiar swing-and-slide playground with one of "natural log obstacles, science tables, vegetable planter boxes and water play systems."

The learning center is a licensed child care center and preschool for children between the ages of 18 months 12 years. For kids, the thought goes, the more free-form playground presents a chance to think critically while ostensibly just having fun outside. The actual benefits of the outdoor classroom are now being measured by UND associate professor Joshua Hunt, who works in the university's educational foundations and research area, and graduate student Cherie Graves. In addition to her work in education, Graves is also a UND instructor of occupational therapy.

According to the release, Hunt has been examining topics such as curriculum, pedagogy and the use of nature. Graves has focused on the visible social interactions, creativity, learning and development as influenced by the unique space.

The two researchers have been gathering data through observations and interviews.

"Our original plan was very simple—to explore the attitudes and beliefs of parents and teachers regarding children's engagement in nature play and outdoor exploration," Graves stated in the release. "As we collected data, the findings spurred areas of further interest."

That interest has included what Hunt described as an apparent "explosion of creativity" in the ways in which the children use the space, including such behaviors as diverting waterways and making use of the other elements in unexpected ways. Hunt believes the outdoor angle to education is a way to introduce controlled risk into the learning process, a piece he says is too often lacking in a modern education strategy rooted in rigid curriculums and standardized testing.

"To not allow children to fail, to not allow them to take risks and help them understand what to do in risky situations, creates people who are not able to function when they're in environments that they're not familiar with," he stated. "We limit so much in the things that we allow children to do. These types of experiences are a counterweight to that."

Andrew Haffner

Andrew Haffner covers higher education and general assignment stories for the Grand Forks Herald. He attended the University of Wisconsin in Madison, where he studied journalism, political science and international studies. He previously worked at the Dickinson Press.

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