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Georgia school ensures kids connect with nature - and go home dirty

Growing number of schools now offer students a daily dose of the outdoors -- with no bus ride required
Students learn nature lessons in classrooms without walls 04:38

At the Chattahoochee Hills Charter School south of Atlanta, learning is a breath of fresh air.

The classrooms here look more like camp or recess.

"We believe with all our hearts that children learn better when they're out in nature," said principal Walter Butler. "Something magical happens when kids connect with nature. I think it allows them to think in a broader sense."

This charter school began two years ago. Three-hundred-fifty kids won a lottery to attend grades K-6. The dozen school buildings welcome natural light, but the real classroom is nature. Students typically spend one third of their school day outdoors, reports CBS News correspondent Mark Strassmann.

"We have about 15 miles of trails, right outside of our campus. It's a playground that's a forest and the students make their own rides," Butler said. "You might say, they build, they create. One of the questions I'm often asked is, 'How do children learn algebra and math out in nature?'"

This is an example of what the school calls "learning through integration." The students use sticks to demonstrate math skills through 3D modeling.

"They learn by seeing the patterns. They see that they can take nature and see mathematics in nature and angles in nature," Butler said.

The school's inspiration came from a 2005 best-seller, "Last Child in the Woods," which argued exposure to nature was essential to childhood development.

Author Richard Louv believes the typical American school fails kids by creating what he calls a "nature deficit disorder."

"If you begin to look at the studies -- of cognitive functioning, creativity, physical health, particularly mental health -- you see the great benefits of spending just a little bit of time in nature gives to kids in particular, but also to us," Louv said.

"I want to be an author when I grow up, so outside, all the details help me tell a story," said a student, Taylor Watson.

Most students come from lower-income families and under-performing schools.

"We're seeing kids discover more. We're seeing kids think more," Butler said.

Standardized testing shows something's working here. In reading, third graders scored 17 points above the national average and 26 points above the regional average.

And fewer kids called in sick, also suggesting a physical benefit. But like any school, parents have complaints.

"Our first year, they griped about how dirty their kids were coming home," Butler said, laughing.

"Who here goes home dirty?" Strassman asked a group of students.

"All of us," one student answered.

Students are told to bring boots, bug spray and a poncho.

"Whenever somebody comes in with like, new shoes, we're all just like, 'why?'" one student said.

"It's not worth it," said another.

But the students also agreed that their grades got "much better."

The next step, Louv said, is getting grownups on board. His new book, "Vitamin N," is a collection of 500 ideas to bring parents back into nature.

"They receive all of the same benefits. Stress reduction, you know, the better mental health, better physical health that the kids do," Louv said.

No one here suggests time spent outdoors will cure everything wrong in America's schools, but like anything else, the right learning environment helps.

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