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So much more than burning energy: Learning opportunities in outdoor play..

Date: February 18, 2015 Author: hpelc Categories: Educators Blog

Have you ever heard people talk about how children should get outside more and burn off some energy? This is often how outdoor play is viewed; simply as a place which provides enough room for children to run around until they get tired. While it is true that this is a benefit of playing outside, it is certainly not limited to a place to let off steam.
The natural environment outside provides endless opportunities to engage children’s cognitive processes. In this blog I hope to explore some of these opportunities and describe some of the ways we, as educators and parents can support this learning.

Sensory experiences: learning to feel, hear, see the outdoors…
When I had my first child, Scarlett, a baby gym instructor told to let my baby touch the grass. She said that so many children come to her classes at 3 – 4 years old, who have constantly been dressed in long pants and have never felt the sensation of grass or dirt or even carpet on their legs. As a result, they become increasing distressed by the new sensory experiences and they are unable to enjoy the intended experiences. In the first years of life, children are extremely sensory and providing the opportunity for them to experience and gain control of the senses in outdoor settings not only provides long term benefits but provides children with joyful exploration. I find watching children explore the outdoor setting delightful as they watch the sand gently trickling from between their fingers, or giggle as the mud oozes out of their hand or even the simple joy as a child stands with head back, eyes closed and outstretched arms simply feeling the wind pass over them.
Sensory experiences are possibly the most simple to facilitate: go outside. Watch, encourage and reassure and enjoy as the child feels their world. And talk! The more we talk to very young children the more experience they get with communication.
Natural sciences:
The vast array of science experiences which children can encounter are another aspect of outdoor education which ignites children’s imaginations and stimulates thinking. Growing vegetables, watching the plants sprout from seeds, grow in the ground and be part of the process by ensuring that they have enough water. Watching tomatoes change colour and ripen on the vine. The thrill of eating the food they have grown.
Finding a caterpillar and discussing what will happen to the caterpillar. The Very Hungry Caterpillar provides a literacy angle to the learning experience. Watching and waiting for a chrysalis to open and see the butterfly emerge.
Catching bugs and digging for worms helps children to understand that there are many creatures in the world who all have special functions. Learning to care for all creatures, no matter how small is an extremely important development with regards to empathy.
Watching the clouds and discussing the weather help children to understand the world as a larger place. Helping them to understand how the world relies on the weather to sustain life.
Risk taking: Outdoor environments provide children with the opportunities to assess risks and decide if they have the physical capability to undertake particular activities. When children are allowed to judge their environment and abilities they are empowered and develop a deeper self awareness. Developing their judgements skills at a very young age will enable them to make better judgements later in life when faced with risks.
Belonging: Forming relationships through cooperative play. While of course there is opportunities to engage in cooperative play in an indoor environment, outdoor environments usually allow for louder and more active play experiences. Children do not feel constrained by the etiquette of the room. They are free to run, yell, laugh, and share their joys. They are able to take risks together, using observations of their peers to help them form a judgment.

Letting our children get dirty and take risks can be an extremely daunting experience for a parent, so it is important that we understand the benefits of letting our children have these experience.
When my first child, Scarlett was a toddler we moved to a house with a big garden and I can honestly say that I hardly ever let her play outside. I was so worried about her putting things in her mouth or getting bitten by something or hurting herself. As a result, it to a great deal of time for her to eventually become comfortable outdoors. By the time my second child, Josie was a toddler, I had begun my studies and learnt the value of getting out and getting grubby! I set out to turn my garden into a natural wonderland! My refuse patch was dug up and turned into a ‘secret garden’, with stone pathway, an abundance of flowers for them to pick (daisies are great for this!) and hidden fairy statues. We have grown vegetables, from seeds to harvest. My daughter even suggested that we give some of our extensive potato crop to the neighbours. We pull out the weeds, prune the trees and eat the fruit. When it rains we out on our wellies and splash in the puddles. When it’s sunny, we get out the hose and make our own puddles! We dig for worms by the fruit trees and take them to different parts of the garden where the soil is not so good.

While I still worry about my children, I understand that they are learning all the time and that the value of that learning far outweighs the risks.

Kate Andrews
Outdoor Education Advocate