Jenny Mischel
The Savannah College of Art and Design

Education is constantly evolving. The digital, fast-paced lifestyle is present in most people’s lives. Educators are seeking innovative ways to enhance learning. The ability to optimize brain functioning is desirable. A promising avenue is the outdoor classroom. Outdoor classrooms provide a natural learning environment which goes far beyond the traditional indoor classroom. In addition to the positive benefits to a student’s wellbeing, outdoor classrooms can impact brain functioning as nature provides a rich tapestry of sensory experiences. Outdoor classrooms expose students to a myriad of sights, sounds, smells, and tactile sensations strengthening neural connections. This not only enhances learning but also stimulates creativity.

Educators realize that creativity is a valued, essential skill that must be cultivated. In stimulating this skill, we equip students to navigate a complex world learning to be adaptable and resilient.  The inclination to practice creativity allows students to develop a growth mindset where they feel comfortable exploring new ideas and taking risks. Those who are able to adapt and think creatively are able to thrive and overcome obstacles. This is increasingly salient given the rate at which AI platforms are progressing and need for problem-solving skills (Plucker, 2022).

The ability to problem-solve is integral to creativity. The outdoor environment allows students an authentic experience to engage in problem-solving (Aladağ et al., 2021). They may need to use higher-order thinking skills to adapt prior ideas and experiences to these new experiences as engagement outdoors is dynamic and unpredictable. For example, Verdine et al., (2017) conducted a study on spatial self-efficacy skills and found significant improvement in spatial skills when students had access to outdoor experiences. Spatial skills are foundational in STEM education (e.g., knowing the location and dimension of objects, how they are related, as well as promoting a vivid imagination).

Increasingly, educators realize the saliency of the seminal work surrounding a growth mindset, by Carol Dweck (2015). This perspective is essential to creativity as is the ability to problem solve. But what is happening within the brain and how is this related to an outdoor classroom, one might ask. When investigating brain functioning in relation to creativity, there are three main regions: the default network, the salience network, and the control network. All three working together propel a creative idea into reality. The default network is activated when we are in a more relaxed state (e.g., mind wandering, or walking in nature). The control network is located in the frontal lobe and is activated when we are engaged in cognitive processes (e.g., working memory). Finally, the salience network connects the two regions so they are able to work together to achieve a goal (Beaty et al., 2016). To put it in simple terms, the default network creates a brilliant idea. The salience network then steps in and sorts out what is potential and discards the ridiculous. The control network then puts a plan in place to execute the original idea.

By promoting the use of outdoor classrooms, educators provide students with an authentic setting to promote self-efficacy in spatial skills, opportunities to engage in problem-solving, and fostering creativity. As we continue to explore innovative ways to enhance learning and optimize brain functioning, the outdoor classroom is a powerful tool to cultivate creativity, enrich education, and prepare students for the challenges of the future. Educators should seize the opportunity to engage in such classrooms as a catalyst for unleashing the boundless potential of the creative mind.

Aladağ, E., Arıkan, A., & Özenoğlu, H. (2021). Nature education: Outdoor learning of map literacy skills and reflective thinking skill towards problem-solving. Thinking Skills and Creativity40, 100815.

Beaty, R. E., Benedek, M., Silvia, P. J., & Schacter, D. L. (2016). Creative cognition and brain network dynamics. Trends in Cognitive Sciences20(2), 87-95.

Dweck, C. (2015). Carol Dweck revisits the growth mindset. Education Week35(5), 20-24.

Plucker, J. A. (2022). The patient is thriving! Current Issues, recent advances, and future directions in creativity assessment. Creativity Research Journal, 1-13.

Verdine, B. N., Golinkoff, R. M., Hirsh‐Pasek, K., & Newcombe, N. S. (2017). I. Spatial skills, their development, and their links to mathematics. Monographs of the society for research in child development82(1), 7-30.