Outdoor Learning Benefits: A Holistic Approach

In recent years, there has been a growing awareness of the significance and benefits of outdoor learning in the early years of a child’s life. This article aims to explore the various outdoor learning benefits and discuss why this form of education is essential for early years, preschools, and nurseries. We will also examine the unique characteristics of outdoor education, the role of innovative approaches like Forest Schools and Beach Schools, and address challenges faced by schools in the UK when implementing outdoor education programs.

First, let’s look at what the research tells us.

Physical Health and Well-being

According to research conducted by the National Wildlife Federation, children who spend more time outdoors tend to have better physical health.

Outdoor play encourages children to engage in beneficial physical activities such as digging, running, jumping, climbing, and carrying and moving heavy objects which all contribute to the development of gross motor skills, strength, and coordination.

Teachers can talk to children about the physical changes they feel during activity, such as increased heart rate and deeper breathing, in order to help children develop a deeper understanding of their body and how it responds to different stimuli.

Mental and Emotional Health

As adults, we have probably heard about the Japanese concept of forest bathing, but studies have shown that it’s not just adults who benefit from proximity to nature. Studies have proven that exposure to nature and green spaces are linked to reduced stress levels, improved mood, and increased self-esteem in children too.

Cognitive Development

Outdoor learning benefits children’s cognitive development by promoting problem-solving, critical thinking, and creativity. When children play outdoors, they are presented with countless opportunities to explore, experiment, and learn through trial and error, particularly in settings such as woodlands and forests. A study conducted by the American Institutes for Research revealed that outdoor education programs significantly improve students’ science scores and critical thinking skills.

In the early years, this could be supported by the adults by allowing problems to go unsolved and allowing children to produce their own solutions. For example, if a large puddle had collected in the usual seating area, children might solve the problem by finding ways to move the water, by finding a new area to gather, or by making raised seats to sit on.

Social Skills and Communication

Outdoor play offers an ideal setting for children to develop and test their social skills and communication abilities. As they interact with their peers in a more relaxed and natural environment, they will need to share, cooperate, negotiate, and resolve conflicts without all the usual scaffolds that they would find in the classroom. Classroom rules are typically very familiar to children but when outdoors, many of those rules don’t apply and unusual situations occur. Devising their own rules for play allows children to take a deeper responsibility for their own actions and to work with others to create a new set of rules specific to that area. These experiences help them build lasting memories, stronger friendships and a key foundation for effective communication and social interaction throughout their lives.

Next, let’s think about what outdoor learning needs to look like.

Forest Schools and Beach Schools: Innovative Approaches to Outdoor Learning

Innovative approaches like Forest Schools and Beach Schools have gained popularity for their emphasis on outdoor learning and the development of a deep connection with nature. These programs provide children with immersive, hands-on experiences in natural environments, fostering their sense of curiosity, wonder, and respect for the natural world.

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Beyond the Classroom Walls: The Unique Characteristics of Outdoor Education

Whether you’re thinking about outdoor learning in a forest, a beach, or simply in your school playground, outdoor education should not merely mirror indoor learning but should provide children with opportunities for bigger, messier, and larger-scale experiences that cannot be replicated indoors. Activities like building dens, digging in the soil, or climbing trees allow children to interact with the environment in ways that are impossible to recreate inside the classroom. When you’re planning your outdoor provision, ask yourself the question, “Would it be possible to do this indoors?” and if the answer is yes, evaluate if there are any opportunities that you may have missed, or avenues you need to explore.

Finally, let’s consider some of the barriers to outdoor learning.

Challenges and Solutions for Outdoor Education in the UK

Weather: The unpredictable weather in the UK can be a barrier to outdoor learning. To overcome this challenge, schools can invest in appropriate clothing and outdoor gear for children and staff, as well as shelters and canopies that provide protection from the elements.

Costs: Implementing outdoor education programs can be expensive, particularly when it comes to providing appropriate resources, equipment, and staff training. Schools can seek external funding, grants, or partnerships with charities, local businesses, and organisations to offset these costs.

Safety concerns: Ensuring children’s safety during outdoor activities is a priority. Schools can address this by conducting thorough risk assessments, establishing clear safety guidelines, and providing ongoing staff training in first aid and outdoor safety procedures, alongside the additional safeguarding concerns of being in less familiar locations.

Access to outdoor space: Limited access to green spaces can be a challenge for urban schools. Schools can collaborate with local parks, urban farms, or nature reserves to provide children with access to outdoor learning environments. Alternatively, schools can create their own green spaces by developing gardens, allotments, or rooftop play areas.

Conclusion

Outdoor learning benefits children in numerous ways, from enhancing their physical health to promoting cognitive development and social skills. To ensure that children’s progress in outdoor learning is well-documented and monitored, early years settings can utilize EYFS Tracking tools like those provided by Educater. These tools enable educators to record observations and evidence of development, effectively assessing and planning for each child’s individual needs.

By providing opportunities for outdoor play and education, early years settings, preschools, and nurseries can support children’s overall development and well-being.

About the author

Picture of Sarah Starling

Sarah Starling

Sarah Starling is a writer and early years consultant with over 20 years’ experience in education, both in the UK and internationally. She is the creator of Box Phonics, a phonics scheme for international learners and home educators. Sarah splits her time between the UK and travelling internationally.