I redesigned a school playground for my PhD – and the children got better marks learning outside

The coronavirus pandemic has disrupted the education of at least 1.5 billion students. That is more than 90% of the world's children. Although many schools in the West and private schools in developing countries have continued some school activities online, more than 50% of learners worldwide do not have a home computer. The lack of personal learning and the ability to play with friends have severely affected children's mental health.
Countries have different approaches when, where and how schools should be reopened, and some places emphasize the benefits of outdoor learning.
Research has shown that an outdoor environment can improve children's motivation and wellbeing, and can increase children's physical activity and learning outcomes. It has been shown that learning in nature reduces stress and promotes mental well-being.
Read More: Scotland's outdoor game initiative has some lessons for the rest of the world
There is evidence that studying outdoors is beneficial in many ways. Rawpixel.com
Outdoor learning has traditionally been practiced in countries on the African and Asian continents, but is increasingly less appreciated. In many cases, this is only perceived as an option if there is no functioning classroom. But more than ever, the benefits of outdoor learning must be used around the world.
I have been researching outdoor learning environments for over 10 years. While most research in this area focuses on western countries, my own has focused on Bangladesh.
In Bangladesh, the net enrollment rate at primary schools is almost 100%, but only 32% of children reach higher secondary levels (usually between the ages of 16 and 18). There are many reasons for this high dropout rate, including poverty and child marriage.
One reason that is rarely considered is the quality of the learning environment. There is evidence that many students drop out of school because they are not attracted to school and dislike the traditional teaching and learning environment.
Outdoor teaching and learning was a key component of the Indian subcontinent's education system and was widely practiced before the education system was formalized. It is still practiced in the Indian city of Shantiniketan, which was founded by Nobel laureate and philanthropist Rabindranath Tagore. However, the idea is not mainstream, and the political, physical, and social infrastructure to support its wider implementation is lacking.
As part of my doctorate, I investigated whether learning in the open air can improve school performance, motivation and playing children in a Bangladeshi primary school. The school grounds in Bangladesh largely consist of barren fields with no characteristics. This clearly had to change if outdoor learning was to be encouraged. The school I worked with was a primary school, 80 kilometers from the capital Dhaka.
The original school grounds. © Matluba Khan, author provided
I wanted the children's contribution to the redesign. I asked class IV children (ages 8 to 12) what they would like to have to learn and play in their playground. The children drew pictures and shared their thoughts. I brainstormed separately with teachers and asked what they would need in the outdoor learning environment to teach and learn outdoors.
Then we all took part in a model building workshop led by the children. I provided materials based on children's drawings and suggestions from teachers. We introduced the model to the local community that has come forward to help us with all the resources they can offer.
The model. © Matluba Khan, author provided
A new classroom
The children wanted places to explore and experiment, to play and learn together, to challenge them physically and mentally, to do things and to be creative, to connect with nature, to be alone and to reflect. Studies with children from different parts of the world have produced similar results and have shown that these preferences are universal.
Meanwhile, the teachers told me that nature can offer opportunities to try science. They wanted different types of vegetation and a garden in the school yard. They asked for an area with various loose materials such as twigs, twigs, seeds and egg crates to demonstrate number theories and other math problems. They also asked for some group learning settings for group activities and an outdoor classroom.
All of these preferences were then taken into account when the Bangladeshi architect Fuad Abdul Quaium and I designed the school grounds. We hired local bricklayers and used inexpensive materials and technologies. The children designed a mural. The school premises were ready for use in January 2015. The teachers regularly took the children outside for their math and science classes.
The mural. © Matluba Khan, author provided
My research has shown that children's math and science performance has improved after teaching and learning outdoors. Class IV children performed significantly better in mathematics and science than a comparable school in which the environment had not changed.
Practical learning outdoors was fun and interesting for everyone, but was particularly beneficial for the underachievers. We found that children who didn't have much to do in the classroom were more proactive and attended their outdoor sessions more.
The new school premises. © Matluba Khan, author provided
An outdoor future
Outdoor classrooms can also provide the space to keep social distance while studying. However, the school campus should be designed to support teaching and learning, and teachers must be trained in the use of their school campus and environment for teaching.
My research strengthens existing knowledge about the benefits of learning outdoors. The study also provides new insights for their use outside of western countries, suggesting that outdoor learning has the potential to improve the quality of education around the world.
This article is republished by The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.
The conversation
Matluba Khan is a co-founder and CEO of A Place in Childhood (APiC), a Scottish non-profit organization. She received funding from the Charles Wallace Bangladesh Trust to complete part of the research study mentioned in the article.

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