Why Trails Matter: Outdoor Learning

Getting outside can help you learn, and trails play a critical role in accessing natural places and learning to love them.

by American Trails Staff

Exposure to greenspace has been proven to reduce stress and improve mental and cognitive health, which is key to effective learning at any age. Outdoor environments that provide opportunities to experience wild nature, and outdoor classrooms are becoming more common. Interpretive trails can tell engaging stories, with or without conventional signage. Whether on a wilderness trail or urban open space pathway, kids and young people who engage in hands-on trail work as a service-learning experience often grow up to be engaged volunteers in their communities. In short, trails can foster outdoor learning and engagement, which leads to community resilience. This article is intended for community-based organizations, trail designers, trail managers, and trail builders, as you build a case for grant-funded outdoor learning experiences or consider ways to integrate outdoor learning into a place-based experience made possible by a trail or path.

Why is Getting Outdoors Important for Learning?

The No Child Left Inside Movement started after the 2005 publication of Richard Louv's watershed book, Last Child in the Woods, which described a condition called nature-deficit disorder. He presented scientific studies that show improvement in mood, focus, and concentration after time spent in or near green, natural places. Unstructured outdoor play in natural places seems to help kids learn better, both inside and outside the classroom.

A Study by the National Institute on Aging showed a strong positive link between overall cognitive function and exposure to green space within walking distance of home and suggested that dementia risk may be reduced by the use of green space. In his book In Praise of Walking neuroscientist and experimental brain research professor Shane O'Mara cites scientific data that walking outside is great for your brain. He says walking challenges our brains to flicker between the big picture long-term thinking and task-focused work such as navigating through our mental map of a place, which helps create associations that improve creative ability. It seems safe to say that trails can help remedy nature-deficit disorder and boost learning capacity for people of any age.

What are the Characteristics of Nature-Deficit Disorder?

Exposure to a healthy green environment is essential to human well-being. Just getting outside helps, but for maximum benefit, it helps to be aware of specific characteristics of nature-deficit disorder. Richard Louv identifies several reversible, interconnected trends contributing to our current disconnection from the natural world:

  • We don't know where our food comes from.
  • An emotionally connected, firsthand experience of other animals and nature has become rare.
  • Our built environment offers very little in terms of natural places to play or be in wild nature, and in fact, actively discourages it.

These three factors suggest that reversing Nature-Deficit Disorder needs to go beyond letting kids have recess on a paved playground, taking a grandparent for a short stroll in a manicured park, or playing sports on artificial turf. For maximum benefit, tactile and fascinating experiences are necessary to help kids understand that our food comes from the Earth and that animals and plants are living beings. This can be as simple as visiting a local community garden or going blueberry picking or fishing. Or it can mean sitting quietly near a trail for an hour, observing plants, listening to the breeze in the treetops, and waiting until a bird or a squirrel or a rabbit or a deer appears. But fewer than half the people in the United States live within a half mile of a park. Our built environment doesn't provide equitable access to nature, and more must be done.

photo credit: Matthew Friant
Learning about salamanders on the Ouachita Trail, Arkansas

Learning about salamanders on the Ouachita Trail, Arkansas

How Can We Assess the Problem and Bring Nature into the City?

Check out the ParkServeR mapping platform hosted by the Trust for Public Land to find out whether your community members all have access to green space within a 10-minute walk of home. The Centers for Disease Control has a website with resources for parks and recreation professionals interested in creating more parks, trails, and green spaces.

Planners and designers are bringing more nature into urban and suburban environments with green streets that help slow stormwater and allow aquifer recharge, or complete streets, green streets designed to maximize safety. On a smaller scale, educators and community members are creating mini forests inspired by Japanese botanist and plant ecologist Akira Miyawaki. Every September, around the world, people participate in Park(ing) Day, where parking spaces are re-purposed into temporary parks. Cities and schools are creating outdoor learning and nature play spaces and interpretive trails.

Outdoor Learning Through Interpretive Trails

If you are thinking of using a trail to tell a story or help connect visitors to the natural and cultural history of a place, consider hiring an interpretive consultant or exhibit designer. These professionals can clarify the project scope, budget, and mission, and identify the audiences and the supporting programs that will give your interpretive trail meaning and enduring value. Here are some key things to know from the Interpretive Media Design Guidelines by the Rocky Mountain Region Center for Design & Interpretation, The Built Environment Image Guide from the USFS, and the Smithsonian Institution's Guide to Exhibit Development:

Accessibility is Paramount
  • Use plain language and short sentences that get to the point.
  • Use a hierarchy of font sizes and information.
  • Use contrasting colors and fonts that are legible to the visually impaired.
  • Situate interpretive panels low enough for children and those in wheelchairs.
Know Your Audience
  • How long and in what ways are visitors going to engage with your trail?
  • How popular is this trail?
  • What "big idea", key messages, and critical questions do you want to convey?
Site Compatibility
  • Signage should enhance the visitor experience and not detract from the environment.
  • Materials and structures should respond to the natural context.

Outdoor Learning Leads to Environmental Literacy

Outdoor learning provides a chance to see and feel firsthand the interaction between people and place, the web of life, and the systems and patterns of nature. Just as learning the alphabet is the first step in reading, outdoor learning is the foundation for building environmental literacy.

The No Child Left Inside Act of 2023 defines environmental literacy as:

A. a fundamental understanding of ecological principles, the systems of the natural world, the relationships and interactions between natural and man-made environments, and the skills to apply such understanding in real-world settings; and

B. having the ability, both individually and together with others, to make informed decisions concerning the environment, having the will to act on those decisions to improve the well-being of other individuals, societies, and the global environment, and participating in civic life.

Is Environmental Literacy Necessary?

According to Judy Braus, Executive Director, North American Association of Environmental Education, in the introduction to the NOAA Community Resilience Education Theory of Change document: "Climate change is the most pressing issue of the century. Already, its impacts are testing our emotional, infrastructural, and societal tolerances. According to the NOAA Global Climate Dashboard, the combined heating influence of all human-produced greenhouse gases was 49% higher in 2021 than it was in 1990. Climate change and the

Widespread environmental literacy creates the conditions necessary for cultural change. When people can have conversations about climate they can start creating resilient communities whose members can feel hopeful and capable of coping with the climate crisis.

photo credit: Matthew Friant
Young volunteer performing trail maintenance on the Ouachita Trail, Arkansas

Young volunteer performing trail maintenance on the Ouachita Trail, Arkansas

How Service Learning Can Play a Role

Service-learning is a combination of hands-on work such as trail maintenance, with learning opportunities that deepen and enrich the experience. For instance, a trail crew doing habitat restoration might plant native plants, observe birds and pollinators that depend on these plants, and map the correlation between animals, insects, and the location and extent of native plant communities over time. Youth who get involved with service learning may develop friendships, a stronger awareness of their community's needs, and a sense of place. They come away from service-learning experiences with an interest to find out more and continue to make a difference. The National Service-Learning Clearinghouse supports the service-learning community in higher education, kindergarten through grade twelve, community-based organizations, tribal programs, and all others interested in strengthening schools and communities using service-learning.

Please see the resources below for more information. Hopefully, this article has been helpful in thinking about the importance of trails to foster outdoor learning, and ultimately to help create resilient communities.

Resources from American Trails:

Reconnecting Children with Nature

Educating Trail Users: Advice for Planning Interpretive Trail Signs and Exhibits

Interpretive Signs and Displays Along Trails

Trail Tales Educational Outreach & Interpretive Plan

Telling a Better Story: Best Practices for Developing Interpretive Panels for Trails

How to Create an Instant Urban Trail

Effective Programs to Improve Access and Use of Trails for Youth from Under-Resourced Communities

More Resources:

Connecting Outdoor Learning to Environmental Literacy

K-12 Service-Learning Standards for Quality Practice

No Child Left Inside Act of 2023

Make Outdoor Learning Your Plan A

National Outdoor Learning Library

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