Product Focus

The power and potential of the outdoor learning environment

  • The power and potential of the outdoor learning environment
  • The power and potential of the outdoor learning environment
  • The power and potential of the outdoor learning environment
  • The power and potential of the outdoor learning environment
  • The power and potential of the outdoor learning environment
  • The power and potential of the outdoor learning environment

by Phil Armstrong, Senior Leader, Early Excellence

When it comes to teaching and learning outdoors, this quote from Professor Tina Bruce often comes to mind:

“Frequent lack of attention to the external environment must come from some bizarre assumption that knowledge acquired indoors is superior to that gained outside.”

There’s more than an element of truth here: we often spend far more time planning and preparing for learning indoors than we do outdoors.

If we are aiming for effective teaching and learning across the curriculum outside, then we have to first appreciate the key differences between indoor and outdoor learning and understand the enormous potential the outdoors offers across the curriculum for young children.

So, let’s look at some of the possibilities of the outdoors in more depth by considering three key areas of development:

  • Exploring
    Seeking patterns, solving problems, making connections, recognising relationships, discovering the natural world
  • Talking
    Broadening vocabulary, generating questions, sharing and discussing ideas, predicting and describing outcomes
  • Representing Ideas
    Exploring a range of graphic ways that ideas can be considered and communicated

Exploring Outdoors

Learning outdoors is different to learning indoors. Outdoor spaces generally provide more space for physical activity and children will naturally want to explore outdoors using large physical movements.

From the outset then, the materials that we provide need to be bigger and more physically challenging than indoors.

Children will develop cognitively and physically if we provide opportunities for this.

So, when planning and resourcing your outdoor space, think big!

Large crates, planks and wooden poles, pegs and different fastenings will all lead to large construction with lots of learning potential. Children will want to create dens – large and small spaces of varying sizes for their imaginative play.

There will be a high degree of problem solving here too. This is the perfect context for activities that are meaningful, challenging and ultimately rewarding!

If we plan it carefully, water play outdoors will also provide endless possibilities for exploration and engagement with many different concepts.

Again, think carefully about the size and scale of what is on offer.

Large buckets, jugs and watering cans of different sizes and depths will all lead to exploration of capacity as children lift and transport quantities of water.

Include pieces of guttering and tubing of different lengths and sizes alongside crates or water stands, and children will explore how water can be transported through different channels.

The ever-changing weather and the joy of discovering features of the natural world are all brought to life by stepping outside. It’s important then, to provide children with the tools and to teach children how to use the tools, so that they can carry out their own investigations and look at things close-up!

To help you get a sense of how much to provide, you can see good examples of Resource Collections on the Early Excellence website, and to help you further with evaluating your outdoor resources, our free Early Excellence Audit Tools are a good place to start.

Talking outdoors

Talk is crucial in the process of learning and making sense of what we have learned.

If our outdoor environment is providing lots of possibilities to explore a range of concepts, then as adults we need to be engaging in this process, using talk to support, challenge and extend thinking.

Being physically involved in this way enables us to be close to the action, sensitively supporting the children to be successful whilst also seeing opportunities to extend language, vocabulary and thinking.

For this balance to happen, we need to value adult engagement in child-initiated activities and allow time for it to happen within our timetable.

A spider’s web on a bush, leaves on the ground in autumn and long shadows across the outdoor area in the winter months all provide simple but powerful opportunities for thinking and conversation – true moments of awe and wonder!

Representing ideas outdoors

The way in which you plan your outdoor space will encourage your children to make marks that help to represent their thinking.

A games area of hoops, balls, skittles, bean bags and other games equipment can provide a multitude of mathematical possibilities, and by placing this area next to a large chalk board will allow your children to create a simple tally to represent and record their games.

Similarly, placing a chalk board next to a mud kitchen area provides fantastic opportunities for recipe and menu writing, expanding a kitchen into a café or laboratory!

In summary

It is clear that outdoor spaces can provide a fascinating context to bring learning to life. So just go for it!

Have a think about the myriad possibilities in your outdoor area.

Things to consider:

  • Are your children engaging with concepts across the curriculum on a large scale?
  • Is there a high degree of problem solving and collaboration?
  • How do adults support children’s language development in the outdoor environment?
  • Does the way that you store your outdoor resources support learning and embed understanding?

Early Excellence support and guidance

At we are passionate about inspiring young learners and committed to helping you develop the very best practice – so whether you are rethinking your outdoor space, equipping a brand-new area or simply adding new resources to extend the curriculum, we’d be delighted to help you.

The Early Excellence Curriculum Team are able to fully support you as you develop your learning environment. Our Guide to Outdoor Provision is packed with detailed advice and also contains a full set of continuous provision planning guides for you to use and adapt.

If you are developing your environment fully, our free Outdoor Planning Service will help you to create an inspirational vision for your outdoor space, so do get in touch.

We also have a free Outdoor Environment Webinar available online where you can develop your vision for a vibrant outdoor learning environment and review and evaluate your current layout and provision.

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