Why is Outdoor Lab So Important
We have all experienced the pleasure of taking a walk in nature or simply sitting beneath a tree on a beautiful day. A crisp winter chill, rustling leaves falling around you, the smell of wildflowers coming to life in spring. These experiences stir the senses and leave us all feeling refreshed and energized. But what has come into focus in recent years are the many tangible benefits - academic, physical, and emotional - that spending time in nature can yield.
Hundreds of studies across the globe have examined exactly what happens to hormone levels, heart rate, mood, education outcomes, civic-mindedness, focus, and other physiological and psychological measures when we are immersed, even briefly, in the natural world. The extensive evidence converges on the same conclusion: being outdoors, especially outside in green spaces, is good for us.
Nonprofit organizations such as the Children and Nature Network, the North American Association for Environmental Education, the Search Institute, Hello Insight, and Fresh Tracks, are coalescing the best academic research on the physical, academic, mental, and communal benefits of a close connection to nature.
Outdoor Lab has been producing these benefits for students since its inception. Beyond the curricular lessons of environmental science, natural history, sustainability, or geology, Outdoor Lab offers a unique opportunity for developing social-emotional learning in an awe-inspiring wilderness setting. Environmental education and outdoor science programs, especially those providing longer and overnight experiences like Outdoor Lab, can play an important role in supporting students’ social and emotional development.
Why is Social Emotional Learning an Important Factor in Youth Development?
Heightened social-emotional learning (SEL) capacities are directly linked to positive youth outcomes and meeting important youth development milestones. According to research, social-emotional learning offers the following benefits:
Academic Success - Developing stronger social-emotional skills improves the academic performance of students. In a 2014 study, SEL was shown to raise students’ achievement scores by an average of 11 percentage points. The ‘soft skills’ that students develop through SEL are shown to improve their attitudes towards school and, as a result, increase their performance in the classroom.
Fewer behavioral problems - Students with strong SEL are less aggressive and disruptive in school. Studies have shown these benefits are long-term, as SEL students still have 10% fewer psychological, behavioral, or substance abuse problems when they reach the age of 25.
Less emotional distress – SEL students have fewer occurrences of depression, anxiety, stress, and social withdrawal, as evidenced by measures like the Children’s Manifest Anxiety Scale. Essentially, as students practice the new behaviors they learn in SEL programs, they develop stronger self-regulation skills.
Positive social behavior - Students get along better with others, as reported by fellow students, teachers, parents, and independent observers. Students and teachers report closer bonds after Outdoor Lab, and close student-teacher relationships make students want to perform better in school and have positive, long-reaching benefits when teachers inspire their students to embrace challenges beyond the classroom.
What Makes Outdoor Lab Uniquely Effective in Growing SEL in Students
First, Outdoor Lab puts students in a different setting from their everyday classroom. This can shift a student’s identity, sense of self, and offer a new layer of self-awareness. To say nothing of the beauty of both our Windy Peak and Mount Evans campuses, a new setting can sometimes shake up the social dynamics of a classroom or other pre-existing social groups. Moreover, interactions with a range of role models (High School Leaders and Interns) and caring teachers and counselors offer students opportunities to try out new ways of being and to see themselves (and be seen by others) in a new light.
This, in turn, allows for a wider range of social roles for the student to be seen and valued back home and in the classroom. These attributes can build students’ positive identities and lead them to build and recognize new strengths in themselves and in others. A new setting can also present opportunities to grow students’ self-management and communication skills as they navigate a new physical and social space and manage their needs in a setting different from their day-to-day lives.
Second, outdoor learning can be dynamic and engaging. Students’ understanding of classroom concepts can emerge directly from their observations and experiences outdoors. Time for reflection after the lesson further supports the development of students’ positive identities and self-perception as learners.
Third, Outdoor Lab offers a range of different physical challenges, including weather or navigating difficult terrain. Through thoughtful support and scaffolding, students rise up to meet developmentally and emotionally appropriate challenges. These experiences support students in developing resilience, perseverance, and confidence.
Lastly, just being outside has health benefits and reduces feelings of stress and anxiety. Access to time outside increases students’ focus on academics once they return to the classroom.
Outdoor Lab Students Show SEL Growth – By the Numbers
The Outdoor Lab Foundation partnered with Hello Insight to participate in a study in which we coordinated the completion of approximately 500 pre-post Social-Emotional Learning (SEL) surveys from our students at participating middle schools. Together, we were able to measure how participation at Outdoor Lab boosts both “Outdoor SEL” and “Core SEL” in our students.
Outdoor SEL captures three independent capacities – Connection to the Outdoors, Well-being in the Outdoors, and Support for the Environment – that indicate young people’s development in outdoor settings. Young people who show Outdoor SEL create a bond with the outdoors and nature, increase their well-being when they are outdoors, and become champions of the environment.
Core SEL encapsulates several capacities that are all interdependent and positively affect the development of emotional, cognitive, and behavioral factors in young people’s lives. Capacities under this banner include Academic Self Efficacy, Contribution, Positive Identity, Self-Management, and Social Skills.
Additionally, we measured students’ Learning Preferences, Program Satisfaction, and Social Capital.
Our findings show:
- When comparing Outdoor Lab students to approximately 125,000 young people participating in 1,500 programs nationwide, Outdoor Lab has proven to be a solid research-based intervention that promotes SEL development.
- 95% of our students grew in at least one Core SEL capacity. 78% grew in two capacities. This means they show meaningful growth in Academic Self Efficacy, Contribution, Positive Identity, Self-Management, or Social Skills after attending Outdoor Lab.
- 70% of our students showed significant growth in one of the three Outdoor SEL capacities.
- Outdoor Lab was particularly strong at growing Academic Self Efficacy, Social Skills, Positive Identity, and Well-Being in the Outdoors.
- 50% of all students reported an increase in the number of adults who care for them and want to see them succeed. This is a measure of Social Capital that has been linked to positive outcomes such as positive health, education, employment outcomes, and a sense of belonging.
- 74% would recommend the Program to a friend.
- 70% of students told us that Outdoor Lab engaged them in learning styles that they prefer.
- 68% of students reported “Engage Authentically” experiences which measure a young person’s experience with an adult who takes the time to get to know them by listening and understanding who they are. Engage Authentically is foundational to Core SEL and has the most potential for impact on a young person.
- 70% of students reported “Challenge Growth” experiences which measure a young person’s experience with an adult who encourages them to take risks and perform beyond their own expectations.
We were able to survey one Title 1 school, which attended both Windy Peak and Mount Evans. The average between these two cohorts exceeded the overall scores of Program participants throughout the year.
- 96% of students grew in at least one Core SEL capacity. 79% grew in two capacities.
- 73% of students showed significant growth in at least one Outdoor SEL capacity.
- 53% of students reported an increase in the number of adults who care for them and want to see them succeed.
- Title 1 students’ growth outpaced the overall population in every Outdoor SEL measure - Well-being in the Outdoors, Connection to the Outdoors, and Support for the Environment.
- Title 1 students’ growth outpaced the overall population in 3 of 5 Core SEL measures – Self-Management, Positive Identity, and Social Skills.
- Growth in Academic Self-Efficacy was the same in Title 1 students as in the overall population.
- Title 1 students reported a higher Program satisfaction score – 79%.
- More Title 1 students told us that Outdoor Lab engaged them in learning styles that they prefer – 74%.
- Title 1 students exceeded the overall population in having Engage Authentically, Promote Peer Bonds, and Challenge Growth experiences while at Outdoor Lab.
Outdoor Lab’s Core Classes Tie Directly to Jeffco Curriculum Standards
The evaluation metrics above, as well as the academic studies that continue to be published annually, argue that environmental education programs like Outdoor Lab are necessary for advancing the types of personal assets and attributes that Jeffco Public Schools, educators, and youth development experts across the country see as vital for the next generation to thrive. But Outdoor Lab also helps teachers meet important classroom goals. In fact, our Core Classes tie directly to the curriculum standards set forth by Jeffco Public Schools and the State of Colorado.
Outdoor Lab is vitally important to our community, not only as a fun rite of passage but as an institution that positively develops our young people into the well-rounded, confident, empathetic leaders of tomorrow. The experience has enhanced the quality of life for generations of Jeffco youth and has been a moment of joy for thousands who still reflect fondly about their time at Mount Evans or Windy Peak. With the care and dedication of countless teachers, academic leaders, partners, and volunteers, Outdoor Lab has become a careful integration of several proven youth development models, including experiential education, social-emotional learning, life-skills training, outdoor recreation, and mentorship.
Outdoor Lab Foundation is a Trusted Partner of Jeffco Public Schools
The Outdoor Lab Foundation recently signed a formal Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) with Jeffco Public Schools. The MOU outlines the values each institution brings to a partnership grounded in providing transformative experiences in the outdoors for Jeffco’s young people.
Outdoor Lab Foundation helps advance Jeffco’s Strategic Plan – Jeffco Thrives 2025. We are specifically supporting Priority 1, Goal 2 – All Jeffco students have extraordinary student experiences that recognize their strengths, challenge them to improve, and support them to succeed. Priority 3, Goal 1 – Physical environments and operational services in Jeffco contribute to instructional excellence and extraordinary student experiences. And Priority 4, Goal 1 – Positive, mutually respectful, and trusting connections with Jeffco families and our community partners to support student success.
As invested community partners, we work in close collaboration with our schools and the district leadership to better resource schools, support student needs, and remove barriers to student success. By working together, we are creating an environment that ensures all students succeed at Outdoor Lab.
Jeffco thinks about partnerships that positively contribute to student outcomes in five ways:
- Increased resources: Partnering with the community can provide schools with access to additional resources, such as funding, volunteers, and equipment that schools may not have been able to obtain on their own.
- Enhanced learning opportunities: Community partnerships can help provide students with new and unique learning experiences that are not traditionally available in the classroom.
- Improved academic outcomes: When schools partner with community organizations, they can create programs and initiatives that target the specific academic needs of students. This can lead to improved academic outcomes, including higher test scores and graduation rates.
- Greater engagement: Community partnerships can help engage students, families, and community members in the educational process. This can create a sense of ownership and pride in the school and can lead to increased involvement in school activities and events.
- Better support for students: Through community partnerships, schools can provide additional support and resources to students who may be struggling academically, socially, or emotionally. This can include mentoring programs, counseling services, and after-school programs.
The Outdoor Lab Foundation positively supports student outcomes in all the aspects listed above. First, we Increase Resources by providing over $177,000 in Outdoor Lab tuition assistance to 35 middle schools to ensure student fees are not a barrier to participation. In total, the Foundation poured over $400,000 into the Program to ensure extraordinary student experiences for students while at Outdoor Lab. Second, we Enhance Learning Opportunities. Because of the Foundation’s support, Outdoor Lab is sustained and strengthened annually. Five thousand sixth-graders and 1,000 high school students attended this Jeffco rite of passage this year.
Third, the Foundation supports Improved Academic Outcomes and Better Support for Students. The evaluation above is evidence that Outdoor Lab has proven to be a solid research-based intervention that promotes SEL development. And that the experiences provided by Outdoor Lab yield measurable benefits academically, socially, physically, and civically.
Lastly, the Foundation supports Greater Engagement. This year the Foundation coordinated 147 volunteers across seven projects that contributed 1,082 hours of community service to Outdoor Lab, valued at $42,174.64. We garnered donations of new outerwear and outdoor gear so that every student had the equipment they needed to stay warm, dry, and safe while on the mountain campuses. These donations exceeded $75,000 in retail value. 900 High School Leaders served over 76,500 hours as instructors and mentors while at Outdoor Lab.