Q. In many of the schools and nurseries I have recently visited as potential settings for my 3 years old son to attend, there seems to be a big focus on outdoor education and how it supports children’s learning and development. What are the benefits of outdoor learning and should this be one of the priorities catered for within Early Years education?

At the heart of every good educational setting should be the focus on the unique child, and working towards understanding and catering for this as effectively as possible. The early years is a child’s introduction to education, it should be an enjoyable experience and nurture a love of learning that they take with them throughout life. The experiences and environment provided by early years practitioners, plays a crucial part in stimulating children towards fostering a deep enjoyment and interest in their learning. The benefits of children spending time outside are vast and proven across many areas. It offers children first hand experiences of life and growth; provides opportunities to explore their imagination and creativity, not to mention the positive impact it has on their fitness and physical development. The outdoors should therefore be seen as a natural extension to the classroom. It provides children with opportunities and a sense of freedom that cannot be re-created indoors.

 

The Early Years Foundation Stage (EYFS) for 0-5 year olds outlines seven areas of learning and development. The seven areas are further broken down into three prime areas, (Personal Social and Emotional Development, Communication and Language and Physical Development) which lay the foundations for children’s success in all other areas of learning and life. Opportunities provided in the outdoor environment make a significant impact in supporting children towards meeting the different milestones of their development in these prime areas. Children seem to lose their inhibitions and become confident in their abilities to communicate and express themselves outdoors, as restraints, such as using quiet ‘indoor voices’ are lifted. I have observed shy and quiet children, become confident leaders outside, asserting their ideas and thoughts, as they take on tasks and think of new games. A child’s self-esteem impacts all of their development and learning, without it they will not be at ease and have the confidence to explore their environment, take part in different activities or interact with others. In the same respect children who demonstrate challenging behaviour inside, can become more relaxed and responsive outside whilst exploring the freedom and space offered. Where we work and play affects all of our emotions. The natural sense of relaxation from being in the outdoor environment also encourages children’s communication skills, as they feel less confined and more at ease to talk. There are so many sensory experiences to talk about, discussions therefore flow and vocabulary is naturally extended.

 

Playing games outdoors introduces children to a range of social skills, such as how to cooperate, problem solve, follow rules and work as a team. Children playing in this way and exploring the outdoor environment are also able to be more active, as they have greater freedom to move around in a variety of ways. Physical activity in childhood is important for many reasons and a variety of sources indicate a direct relationship between physical activity and children’s health. In early childhood physical exercise helps build strong bones, muscle strength and lung capacity. The NHS guidelines say, children under five should not be inactive for long periods, except when they're asleep. Physical exertion to get our heart and lungs working hard is vital for a healthy body. This can be easily achieved outdoors through many fun activities such as, running, skipping, climbing, digging, jumping etc. The physical effects children feel and experience on their body whilst exercising, leads to questioning and a deeper understanding about our health.

 

Playing outdoors also helps to develop motor functioning. Several studies show that children who lack proficient motor skills often choose not to participate in physical activities as they get older. In this sense exercise breeds exercise, those who are more confident and capable in their motor skills will be more inclined to engage in and embed physical activity into their lifestyle. Exercise impacts on the mind too and a child’s emotional health, when exercising endorphins are released, giving an overall sense of wellbeing and relaxation. If children are happy, stimulated and feel good about themselves and their environment, they will become engaged in their learning and confident to explore and take on new challenges. This in turn leads to a positive and purposeful attitude towards learning.

 

The four specific areas of the EYFS are Maths, Literacy, Expressive Art and Design and Understanding of the World. Mathematical concepts in the Early Years are very much based around practical experiences involving concrete objects and sensory exploration. The outdoor classroom can cater for this in different ways, such as counting out natural objects, measuring out different volumes in water play, looking at shapes around us and using different resources to build and make them etc. Literacy can also be supported, as experiences offered through the outdoors and sensory engagement help with the comprehension of and connection to stories. Children love writing letters in sand and with large paint brushes and water on the ground. Mark making doesn’t have to be restricted to paper and pencils. The freedom provided by the outdoors further supports children’s creativity and imagination. Children can make up their own games, explore natural objects, make dens for creatures and themselves and be inspired by nature and express themselves through painting on outdoor easels. Children learn first-hand about the world around them, such as plant and animal life cycles, weather, seasons, growth and change. The seasonal changes that occur to the outdoor surroundings, keep children enticed and in a sense of wonder and intrigue, as they provide such visual and sensorial experiences.

 

The Characteristics of Effective Learning are part of the EYFS that describe children’s attitude towards learning and outline how they learn as opposed to what they learn. They are split into three categories, Playing and Exploring, Active Learning and Creative and Critical Thinking. There should be a very evident focus on the priority of catering for these characteristics in order to offer children rich experiences that support them. If positive learning habits are formed in their early years, children will be able to apply these learning styles throughout their lives. In the beginning of a child’s learning journey they learn best through playing and exploring in their environments. This learning style is naturally supported through access to the outdoor area. Understanding what something is, is the foundation of learning. In order for children to develop a deeper more figurative understanding, they need to be actively involved in the process and given opportunities to be able to apply this knowledge to different situations. The outdoor environment offers a hands on and active learning experience, as children engage their movements and senses. Once children have acquired this deeper level of understanding, their confidence needs to be nurtured through appropriate challenges provided that help to stagger their learning. These carefully thought through challenges, will enable children to begin thinking more creatively and critically, follow their own thoughts and ideas and make decisions about different ways to do things in order to achieve their own successes. Challenges in line with children’s interest and abilities, can be subtly provided in the outdoors and entice children towards engaging with them. Children will only develop resilience and the confidence to take on new challenges if their previous experiences have been positive. Knowledge will therefore not come without self-esteem, it needs to be nurtured every step of the way when building on a child’s understanding and challenging them accordingly.

 

Settings that prioritise the importance of outdoor learning will reflect this in a number of ways, for example, through the maintenance and attention given to the outdoor area itself, gardening patches for growing herbs and vegetables, carefully thought through outdoor resources such as sand and water play and instrument walls. The teachers planning for the children should also have many outdoor elements and ideas embedded within it. Some settings have free flow to the outdoors, so children have access to it throughout the whole day. You may even be lucky enough to come across a setting that has Forest School within its curriculum. Forest School is becoming very popular and offers exciting and purposeful outdoor experiences for children in ideal outdoor surroundings.

Enjoyment and socialising are the greatest motivation for children choosing to engage in activities. I hope you’ll agree on reflection, that the social and emotional benefits offered by the outdoors, are the starting point of what playing and exploring outside has to offer children’s holisitc development and well-being. Children who enjoy physically active play, especially in natural environments, may be laying the foundations for better health and a longer life than sedentary children. Outdoor activity in early years setting is influenced by a number of factors, including the layout of the setting, ethos of staff and the level of encouragement they provide, opportunities for free flow play into the outdoors and the equipment provided. This not only influences the amount of time children spend being active outdoors, but also the quality of activity they engage in and therefore the overall benefits.

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