LESSONS FROM DENMARK: The Benefits of Reading, Writing and Arithmetic in the Great Outdoors

About the Author

Mikkel Bo Schneller, MSc, PhD, is a Postdoctoral Researcher at Steno Health Promotion Research, the Capital Region of Denmark. Lærke Mygind, MSc, is Research Assistant at Steno Health Promotion Research. Erik Mygind, MSc, PhD, is associate Professor and head of the TEACHOUT udeskole research project 2014-2018. Peter Bentsen, MSc, PhD, is a Senior Researcher and Team Leader at Steno Health Promotion Research.

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Envision a class where the students are released from their desks and other classroom conventions. Instead, they are set loose into the local natural environment around their schools. These children are free to explore, wonder, inquire, play, move, and use bodily gestures and senses to learn and practice school subjects and curriculum.

These students are practicing Scandinavian udeskole – literally translated as “outdoor school”- and they are benefitting from an approach that gets them active while they are learning.

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There has never been a time where outdoor learning is more important. Today, children are increasingly sedentary. A trend which has contributed to declines in mental health, an alarming escalation in obesity rates and a rise in non-communicable diseases such as type 2 diabetes later in life. But our research suggests that moving teaching out of the classroom (EOtC) can increase children’s physical activity as well as achieve the primary purpose of school: education and learning.

In recent decades, Scandinavian countries have often been looked to as models of outdoor learning in pre-school and school. The Danish concept of udeskole is an approach to EOtC, which aims to integrate children and young people’s educational activities with the outdoors, often in natural settings, and promote their activity levels, well-being, and academic learning.

Here are some of the many ways that udeskole and EOtC are being applied:

  • A teacher integrates nature-based teaching activities with children’s play and movement culture. For example, students can examine, feel and describe a tree’s bark to subsequently note the structure of the bark in a logbook. The exercise is followed by tree type naming.
  • Another teaches mathematics in the schoolyard with a specific focus on body and movement, where students jump, run relays, and play tag.
  • In groups, students walk from post to post in a forested area located in close proximity to the school. At the individual posts, the students are faced with different mathematical challenges. At one post, the children are asked to measure several distances from one point to another (65, 115, and 260 feet) using a rope and a measuring stick as a reference.
  • At another post, the children are provided with three hanging scales (with analog rather than digital displays) of different sensitivities and asked to measure the weight of a large block of wood, a medium-sized chunk of concrete and a small rock. As such, mathematics is not only written, seen, or spoken; it’s is also walked, lifted, played, and moved.

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A number of Scandinavian studies have found an association between EOtC in natural environments such as urban parks and increases in children’s physical activity level compared to more traditional classroom-based teaching. The largest research project about EOtC to date is the TEACHOUT study. The study measured, among other things, physical activity including 769 children from 36 classes at 16 schools.

The TEACHOUT study found that three hours of weekly EOtC increased boys’ physical activity substantially (measured as time engaged in physical activity of an intensity comparable to brisk walking or cycling) over a full 7-day week when compared to students in a traditional classroom setting.

Study findings also showed that education that devoted whole days and segments to EOtC were associated with more physical activity for boys and girls — compared to reliance only on traditional classroom teaching.

Our research suggests that EOtC in natural green environments can enhance education. The research tells us that EOtC practice can promote children’s physical activity, movement and positive experiences in natural settings. Fortunately, udeskole is the long-standing commitment of some educators into a wider movement. We hope that these trends and new research will serve as inspiration for new applications in both education and public health.

Additional Reading 

GROWING THE UDESKOLE MOVEMENT: Finding Balance in School-Based Outdoor Learning
UDESKOLE IN SCANDINAVIA: Teaching and Learning in Natural Places
FOREST THEATRE: A Lesson in Letting Kids Self-Direct
THE SCHOOL OF NATURE: Greening Our Schools May Be the Real Cutting Edge of Education, by Richard Louv
Earth in Mind, by David Orr
Beyond the Rainbow Bridge, by Barbara Patterson and Pamela Bradley
Sharing Nature with Children, by Joseph Cornell
Problem-Solving in the Classroom: A Case Study from Georgia’s First Forest School by Jas Darland


Schneller, M.B., Bentsen, P., Nielsen, G., Brønd, J.C., Ried-Larsen, M., Mygind, E., & Schipperijn, J. (2017). Measuring Children’s Physical Activity: Compliance Using Skin-taped Accelerometers. Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise, 49(6), 1261-1269.

Schneller, M.B., Duncan, S., Schipperijn, J., Nielsen, G., & Mygind, E., & Bentsen, P. (2017). Are children participating in a quasi-experimental education outside the classroom intervention more physically active? BMC Public Health, 17, 523.

Schneller, M.B., Schipperijn, J., Nielsen, G., & Bentsen, P. (2017). Children’s physical activity during a segmented school week: results from a quasi-experimental education outside the classroom intervention. International Journal of Behavioral Nutrition and Physical Activity, 14: 80.

Mygind, E. (2016). A comparison between children’s physical activity levels at school and learning in an outdoor environment. Health Behavior and Policy Review, 3, 455-467

Photos courtesy of the authors.

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