Can an excursion around a pond, a stroll through a park, or a hike through the forest improve your child’s reading? You might be surprised! We have no doubt that reading, usually an indoor activity, can inspire children to spend time in nature. If you read outdoor adventure books aloud to your children, such as Gary Paulsen’s Hatchet, Brian’s Winter, The River, or Brian’s Hunt or Jean Craighead George’s My Side of the Mountain, they may just want to try out their own survival skills in nature for a day or even spend a weekend camping out in the woods.

How Can Getting Kids Outdoors Improve Reading?

Reading is more than sounding out words or memorizing the author’s message. Reading is an interactive process between the child’s experiences and background knowledge and the author’s meaning as expressed by the printed words on the page. To have a deep understanding of the text, the reader and the author must have a shared general conceptual knowledge of the text’s ideas. There may also be shared personal experiences that readers have with authors that give them additional insights into the meaning of the text.

How Do Children Gain General Conceptual Knowledge?

Children learn concrete concepts and abstract concepts through multiple experiences and discussion with someone who is a little more knowledgeable. Concrete concepts include fish, tree, and decay while abstract concepts include evaporation, food webs, and photosynthesis.  

In nature, children learn concrete concepts using their senses to see, hear, touch, smell, and even taste.

  • During a stroll through the park, children may observe a bird building her nest from bits of grass and twigs.
  • They may remark on how a chipmunk and a squirrel are different.
  • Children can also see leaves changing colors.
  • Pointing out these features and talking about them will enhance children’s conceptual knowledge.

Abstract concepts are often learned through talking about observable phenomenon.

  • During an excursion around a pond in a gentle rain, children often ask many questions.
  • “Why do raindrops cause rings on water? “Do frogs get cold in the rain?”
  • “Where does the rain come from?” “Where does all the rain go?” 
  • These are hard questions that may lead to more reading to find the answers.
  • Without experience in the natural environment, children are much less likely to explore these types of questions.

Linking Concepts about Nature Leads to Building Bigger Ideas in Science

  • Many popular children's literature selections include science “big ideas,” concepts, and vocabulary.
  • Children who spend time outdoors have a higher likelihood of intuitively learning these ideas, which then can be brought to their reading and listening experiences.
  • For example, a quick examination of six classic children’s picture books illustrates how children’s concepts about nature can enhance the comprehension of these books. Find a list of these classic books at the end of this article.
  • When children come to the text with the listed concepts and big ideas, they will better understand the book and the author’s message.
  • Children’s conceptual knowledge will be enhanced by the information in the text.
  • Comprehension of future experiences in nature and future encounters with these concepts in text will be improved. On the other hand, without the prior conceptual knowledge, comprehension of the book may break down.

Take Your Children Outdoors to Get Them Reading!

Next time you take your children outdoors, be it to the backyard, a local, national, or state park, a river, a pond, a beach, or a field, they will be learning important concepts by engaging in natural conversations with you about the world around them. You don’t have to have all of the answers to help them begin to build concepts. 

Helping children build conceptual understandings can improve reading comprehension. If children are reading fiction, the setting and problem frequently involve nature concepts. Reading factual text is often more difficult for readers who do not possess sufficient background knowledge.

Take that walk with your children today. Look around and take notice of all of the science concepts around you. Talk, observe, listen, touch, smell, and enjoy the great outdoors knowing that you are also helping to improve your children’s reading!

Six Great Picture Books for Kids Up to Age Seven

Blueberries for Sal by Robert McCloskey : Animals eat plants or other animals for food and may also use plants (or even other animals) for shelter or nesting.

We’re going on a Bear Hunt by Michael Rosen: There are different landforms on Earth’s surface such as coastline, rivers, mountains, deltas, and canyons.

Over in the Meadow by John Langstaf:  Some plants and animals are alike in the way they look and in the things they do and others are very different from one another.

Make Way for Ducklings by Robert McCloskey:  When offspring grow up, they are very much but not exactly like their parents. All kinds of living things have offspring.

The Little House by Virginia Lee Burton:  Some changes are so slow or so fast that they are hard to see. Change is something that happens to many things.

The Very Hungry Caterpillar by Eric Carle:  Living things need water, food, and air to grow. Change is something that happens to many things. Some changes are so slow or so fast that they are hard to see.

Debbie Powell has served as a teacher K-8, reading specialist, reading coordinator, and university professor for over 30 years.  She teaches research, literacy, and integrated curriculum to undergraduate and graduate students at the University of North Carolina University Wilmington.  Her B.S. and M.S. are in elementary education and her Ed.D. in reading is from Indiana University.  She has published articles, book chapters, and developed programs for educational publishers on science and literacy, integrated curriculum, reading, writing, and spelling. Roberta Aram has been an educator for over 30 years.  She currently helps elementary teachers learn how to teach science. She has a B.A. in Biology from Wheaton College in IL, an M.S. in Reading from the University of Northern Colorado, and a Ph.D. in Science Education from the University of Missouri.  She has published articles in Science & Children and other journals focusing on elementary science teaching and learning.  She gives Project WET (Water Education for Teachers), Project Learning Tree, and Project WILD workshops designed to encourage teachers and non-formal educators to integrate environmental education across the curriculum.