The Benefits of Learning Outdoors!
I have always been a massive advocate of learning in the great outdoors. From birth, simple activities can be taken outside to provide an additional sensory experience, for example, doing tummy time on a mat on the grass rather than in your living room. In settings and schools we can pretty much take any activity outside and children will relish the opportunity to breathe in the fresh air, experience a different environment and complete their work outside. However, true learning outdoors is much more than just taking the classroom learning outside. It’s about using the outdoors to play and learn. It’s about exploring the outdoors to teach key skills in order to be life long learners, having resilience to overcome difficulties and being empowered to investigate, discover and flourish in the world around them. For this, children need first hand, child led outdoor experiences.
Historically, being around nature is how we as humans lived our lives. Our grandparents, great-grandparents and ancestors spent so much more time exploring, working and enjoying being outside. Even today when we are outside, we are surrounded by telephones, technology and not switching off. As a generation instead of basking in sunshine, many are basking in the glow of a technology screen and up to 90% of our time is spent indoors.
As a child, some of my favourite memories were times spent outdoors. In primary school we used to have a reading tree and going outside to listen to the story at the end of the day outdoors was so magical compared to staying inside. In secondary school we were lucky to have an amphitheatre, although it saddens me it was a rare, but fun occasion when this was used. My fondest memories of school are the outdoor trips and residentials. I’ve spent many a holiday and weekend enjoying the outdoors with friends and family too. Being outdoors is that time to escape, be free, think, enjoy and take a break. For our children I believe it’s a time for them to explore freedom, have adventures, express themselves and improve their physical and mental health and development.
Being outdoors has many benefits. It is vital to improve well-being, it is calming, peaceful, and allows us to tune in with ourselves and the world around us. For our children it is vital for supporting their brain development. By exploring with their senses for example, touching flowers, listening to the birds, feeling droplets of water and smelling the fresh air they are strengthening the connections in their brain. The hands on element of learning in nature and outdoors makes the learning stick. It doesn’t matter what age or what subject, the more active and hands on the learning, the more memorable the experience will be and with a memorable experience the learning will stay!
By playing outside children are free to truly express themselves physically by running, jumping and playing. This develops their gross motor skills and helps them to keep fit. It allows them to develop the key life skills I mentioned earlier. If it rains – how will they react? Does this mean play time is over, or does this mean there’s a new opportunity to learn? Can we use it as an opportunity to extend vocabulary and develop their communication and language? Can we discuss cause and effect? For example, saying to your child, “it’s raining – what can we do so we can stay out here? Let’s get our wellies and rain coats!”
As educators we need to empower children to play outdoors and one thing that I am passionate about is that there is no such thing as bad weather, just bad clothing! This is a key philosophy of Forest Schools and an approach adopted by many of the Scandinavian countries. I personally believe it is so important for children to be outside in all weathers (with the appropriate clothing) because it enhances their understanding of the world around them. They learn to understand how the change in environment affects their body. For example, If it’s sunny and I feel hot, what should I do? They also get a first hand experience of natural phenomena such as clouds – why would you teach about the clouds from a picture when you can take children outside to study the different formations?
The language we use with our children to empower them to play outdoors is vital. Often, we can become focussed on enforcing rules but we need to think about our language choices to ensure we are supporting development. For example, instead of saying, “Don’t throw the sand!” we could try saying “Is there a place you can throw the sand where it won’t hit anyone?”. Or instead of saying “Be careful” we could try saying “Let’s see if it’s safe to…” empowering them to be mindful of their environment will help their development whilst also ensuring a measure of safety.
Outdoor play and learning is vital for all children. It doesn’t always have to be a well thought out pre-planned activity, and in fact, going on an adventure in the woods or setting up an outdoor invitation to play such as petals, mud and kitchen utensils will prompt so much learning from something so simple. An activity that is child led will have the most gains. The key to truly embracing the outdoors to support children’s learning is to inspire children to love and connect with nature. In order to do this they need to experience it, feel it and explore it. Get your children outside in nature today!