We’ve all seen those kids who sit, crouched in a corner or lolling on a beanbag, screens in hand and oblivious to the outside world.

And while screen-based education is wonderful and can open windows into aspects of the world which would be otherwise inaccessible, there is a whole, real world that simply waits to be explored too. 

Fortunately, there is now a strong and dedicated movement of people and organisations who are doing their best to get kids out of their classrooms and homes, away from screens and electronic devices and into the great outdoors. And what better way to do it than through an overseas excursion based in the tropical north of Australia? 

Anne Vize takes a look at some outdoor experiences that could form the basis for your next excursion. Although the focus of this article is on Australia’s tropical north, many concepts and activity ideas would work equally well when applied to other outdoor environments. 

Kids do better in nature

There is a growing body of research that shows children and nature are a winning combination. Getting children outdoors to experience the changing face of nature gives children a much greater understanding of how environments change with seasons, human intervention and environmental processes such as erosion.

This is particularly effective when we revisit a nearby patch of nature repeatedly, so that children learn how a natural part of their local environment grows, changes and develops.

For example, visits to locations such as Trinity Beach with its changing marine and coastal conditions, or the Crystal Cascades area of Cairns can show children how local communities work and live in balance with natural environments. 

Reducing the impact of ADHD

For children who have been diagnosed with ADHD, research suggests there can be positive benefits associated with getting outdoors into natural spaces.

Research from 2004 found that children with an ADHD diagnosis experienced a reduction in their symptoms and a greater ability to concentrate when they had a green, outdoor play space available close by, and that this effect was seen regardless of individual or residential variations.

If your own class includes young people who have been diagnosed with ADHD, it is well worth experimenting to see how they respond to regular time in an outdoor, natural environment.

Activities to try might include yoga on the beach or along the Esplanade in Cairns or completing a regular bushwalk in an area such as Mt Whitfield Regional Park, around five kilometres from Cairns. 

Tune into the senses

Children who spend time in nature are also more able to tune in to their senses and use them to experience the world around them. Unlike the two-sense focus of screen-based technology, outdoor natural environments encourage children to smell and touch, and sometimes even to taste things which are around them, rather than only obtaining information from their vision and hearing. 

Building physical skills

In a world which sees children and adults alike becoming increasingly overweight and conditions such as Type 2 diabetes becoming more common amongst young children, an outdoor natural space encourages children to be active and explore movements, play spaces and open-ended activities.

This in turn builds motor coordination, flexibility, strength and aerobic fitness – all fundamental components of a fit, healthy older child or adult. The 2012/13 New Zealand Health Survey found that one in nine (11 per cent) NZ children (aged 2–14 years) were obese and a further one in five children (22 per cent) were overweight.

Time spent being physically active during an excursion outdoors is vital in supporting the need of children to have vigorous physical activity as a regular part of every day.

To do this, consider your excursion plan carefully and ensure you allow unstructured time for free play as well as planned physical activities such as completing an obstacle course over natural objects or doing a skipping challenge in a nearby park before lunch.

Making links

One of the important aspects of planning an excursion into an outdoor natural environment is to consider carefully how the activity relates to the curriculum, and how to ensure the activity is able to be completed safely by all children.

Outdoor nature-based excursions can relate to inquiry projects, a fiction book with outdoor themes, or geography or science outcomes.

For example, an activity to visit the Kuranda State Forest inland of Cairns could see students learning about threats to local fauna and flora, studying the life cycle of the Ulysses butterfly or observing how plants and trees change in size and shape with increasing altitude. 

If you are focusing your learning on water use and related topics, Cairns Regional Council has lots of resources, including quizzes, colouring pages and general information on topics such as water use, saving water and environmental issues.

There are also tours of the water laboratory, Lake Morris and Copperlode Falls Dam, all of which are wheelchair accessible. These tours are suited to older children (over 13 years) and there are restrictions on vehicle access for some areas: edhq.co/1DSA7GD

Unstructured play

Young children, such as those in pre-school and junior primary age groups, often do well with a reasonable amount of unstructured play time in their day.

Although to the untrained eye, this play looks like simply mucking around and having fun, in fact there is also a serious amount of learning going on.

Exploring the watery shallows of a creek such as Freshwater Creek at Redlynch, provides possibilities such as learning about freshwater turtles, understanding the impact of introduced fish species on native stock, discovering what happens to water flow when rocks are moved on a creek bed or noticing how large, flat leaves rather than thin, small ones predominate on trees in the area.

Incidental learning such as having leaf races down the creek can also incorporate maths and science knowledge into your excursion program. 

Accessibility issues

When planning an excursion into an outdoor environment, it is important to think about how you will make your activities accessible and inclusive. This does not mean making alternative arrangements for students with disabilities back at school, but rather planning how you can positively and proactively make sure all students are fully included. 

The Queensland Government’s Department of National Parks, Sports and Racing website includes a listing of no less than 21 parks in North Queensland with wheelchair access, so there should be ample scope to plan a full day’s excursion which is easily accessible for all students: edhq.co/1waQAQ4

Of course, it is also important to consider the needs of children who have other disabilities and conditions, and to think about how you will share information, manage emergencies and ensure safety for children who may have a sensory impairment, autism spectrum disorder or intellectual disability. 

So if you are thinking of an overseas excursion based in the tropical north of Queensland, consider how an excursion into an outdoor, natural environment could fit into your teaching and learning program and how the benefits for your students might stretch far beyond purely academic outcomes.  

Anne Vize is the author of Inclusive Outdoor Play, published by Teaching Solutions (edhq.co/1Clw8Vp/).  She has also written the PDF eBook Exploring Nim’s Island with Primary Students, published by Banksia Publishing (edhq.co/1KI5hFF).