Enabling Environments

Outdoor learning in Early Years – Encourage families to take their children outside

  • Outdoor learning in Early Years – Encourage families to take their children outside

My three godsons attend a wonderful nursery which they love. When the first lockdown was announced, my friend admitted she struggled with the thought of losing her routine and was worried about keeping three under-fours entertained and engaged.

She quickly started daily walks and garden time, where the boys learnt to plant seeds or just enjoyed the feeling of running around barefoot in the grass.

However, she was surprised when she received no communication from the nursery on activities that would help the boys continue their learning, so took to Google for inspiration.

I’ve seen many social media posts on the struggle of homeschooling (the MC Hammer parody of “I can’t teach this” is a personal favourite).

But when it comes to early years the general public often seem unaware of the important role high-quality education plays in children’s physical and mental development, and nurseries are often seen as just childcare.

Online learning is almost impossible for most settings, though I’ve heard of one practitioner who live streams story time from the ‘mat’ every afternoon!

So how do we ensure parents feel empowered to continue their children’s education at home, especially time spent outdoors, which benefits both the child and parent?

Simple ideas for outdoor learning

I love the access millions of children have to free outside play in early years, something unfortunately lost to school children. But we know during lockdown many children don’t get time outside.

As we continue to face disruption, I’m keen to see how we can continue to support parents as a sector.

At the beginning of the first lockdown, LtL set up a social media group for parents and carers. Thousands joined in the first few days, looking for support, but something we heard repeatedly was that parents and carers sometimes struggle to know what to do outside with their child.

The Nurturing Nature project works in early years settings in areas of high deprivation, to support families to spend more time outdoors. I’m proud to say this successful project regularly sees families begin to prioritise time spent outdoors over soft play and other activities.

“I was never sure what to do in the outdoors,” one participating parent reflected. “I always thought I would need loads of stuff. I never knew where to begin and thought I’d never be able to afford all the stuff anyway, so I just didn’t bother.

“I’ve realised how much fun [the children] could have using no resources! Just spending time exploring, looking at the different plants and objects, hunting for colours, making up stories together about the things we saw together.”

Being outdoors doesn’t need to be complicated; keeping it simple and fun is key, so why not suggest simple activities like taking a short walk and…

  • Allowing children to walk off the normal path and (safely) explore
  • Setting a simple task like ‘find five long things or three big green things’
  • Taking items home to create art or use as story starters
  • Touching, feeling and smelling
  • Looking at objects in different ways: upside down, sidewards, between your legs!

Proven benefits of being outdoors

Time spent outdoors is proven to improve health and wellbeing, but an interesting piece of research carried out by Manchester, Oxford and Cardiff universities explored whether natural environments affect communication between parents and their 3–4-year-old children.

The study found that “natural environments influenced social interactions between parents and children by increasing connected, responsive communication” and that “these contexts may improve outcomes for interventions focused on cognitive and linguistic development.

The positive influence of natural environments on human communication,” it said, “shows that when we respond to nature, we also respond to each other.”

With clear evidence supporting the role of outdoor learning, I hope as we come through this pandemic parents will begin to look at education differently.

People must recognise early years education as a foundation for inspiring a lifelong love for learning; anything your setting can do to support this I’m sure will be gratefully received by families at home.

Carley Sefton Is the CEO of Learning Through Landscapes (LtL), a UK charity dedicated to enhancing outdoor learning and play for children. Visit ltl.org.uk/free-resources to download free early years resources.