Outdoor Learning for Nursery Aged Children

The benefits of learning outdoors

Outdoor Learning for Nursery Aged Children

Cargilfield Preparatory School 7O7A8757 Photograph by Angus Bremner

With outdoor learning being such a hot topic at the moment it would be interesting to put this idea under the microscope, exploring and creating a greater understanding as to the reasons behind its current popularity. Here we will look more closely at the benefits that this practice has on children’s overall development and which specific areas benefit from an increase in outdoor exposure.

It is widely thought and increasingly proven that outdoor learning or learning in natural environments in hugely beneficial both for our children’s health and for their overall development. There is an ever-increasing library of studies that show very strong correlations between outdoor play and improved health and wellbeing. Some of the more specific benefits in these studies discuss how outdoor learning has health benefits such as;

  • Developing our physical and emotional wellbeing
  • Increasing levels of physical activity
  • Increasing cortisol levels which in turn reduces stress and anxiety levels
  • Boosting immunity
  • Boosting confidence and self-esteem
  • Boosting mood levels
  • Increasing vitamin D exposure
  • Improving BMI.
  • Encouraging children to build a healthy approach to physical activity in the long term.
  • Allowing for a greater ability to access risk, be safe, make decisions and be independent.

In addition to the health and wellbeing benefits, we have seen that greater amounts of time in natural settings also allows children to develop other skills such as their gross and fine motor strength though activities like: digging, carrying big logs, making dens, climbing, using hammers and nails, saws, building camp fires and even camp cooking. All of this exposure to a large range of active tasks builds strength in small and large muscles throughout the body, which could later benefits children’s stamina and accuracy in sports as well as progress in writing skills, creative tasks and other tasks requiring dexterity.

We have seen these environments also lend themselves to creating child-initiated problem-solving scenarios. These allow them to nurture critical thinking skills in a practical environment. Creating structures or dens is a great example of this. The children are selecting appropriate materials, thinking about and testing structural integrity and amending their creations where necessary. In these spaces the children are free to explore and experiment with fewer boundaries. This expands their knowledge on other scientific concepts and mathematical approaches such as gravity and forces.

Other scientific skills are also enriched in outdoor play settings. They build their observation and investigative skills by going on bug hunts, asking questions about what they see and the changes they see happening. Being in nature during different seasons and observing nature change through time naturally leads to questioning. From exploring frozen water in puddles to investigating the textures and properties of different natural materials, the learning opportunities are endless. Children even develop life skills like fire and water safety, rope tying, or learning how to use real tools.

The children’s social and emotional progress is also an area that has been studied and these studies have shown that the children playing in and exposed to these spaces had increased self-esteem, resilience, ability to solve conflict, cooperation skills, leadership skills and interpersonal skills. It has even been argued that this leads to greater cognitive performance and even academic performance better preparing the children for what lies ahead.

From the large bodies of research on this subject and our continued observation in practical settings there is really a huge range of evident benefits to this play environment and embracing this is crucial to giving our children the best opportunities for development. In a world with ever increasing screen time at younger ages, giving our children more time in the elements seems fundamentally right.

At Cargilfield we believe in and have embraced outdoor learning and are committed to our children spending a minimum of 50% of their time in outdoor settings. We have a fantastic and large Nursery garden, surrounded by trees and natural materials. The children explore our sensory garden, water and sand areas, mud kitchen, growing patch and imaginative tree house spaces to play in (all of which they have planned and chosen resources for). We place the utmost importance on the children driving their learning and because of this the children choose which outdoor environments they wish to go to. The children are given opportunities to go to our Nature kindergarten in our woodland area or our Enchanted Forest several times a week. This is where we teach risk assessment, build fires, use tools and have great den building materials. We also have a new outdoor learning centre that features outdoor investigation and exploration resources and a camp style teaching and cooking space. This is nestled in between two forested areas and allows us to utilise these spaces for longer stretches of time. We also provide responsive trips to local natural environments and have recently expanded these to include not only our weekly Friday beach trips but also other local places of natural beauty such as Cammo and Lauriston Castle so that we can frequent these environments all year round. We are incredibly lucky to have several minibuses at our disposal and with smaller numbers we are able to go on trips every week making these spaces very familiar to the children: leading to greater exploration and comfort in these beautiful settings.

Essentially, we aim to create and foster memorable moments and experiences in natural settings, that will last a lifetime. This sets the children up for a healthier future in which they are in tune with their surroundings and environment and have a love of nature and the outdoors. This, in combination with an exciting and targeted programme that embraces academic rigour, has created a very successful balance that leads to happy, achieving children. At Cargilfield, every day is an adventure!

Further topic related reading

  1. Getting Out of the Classroom and Into Nature: A Systematic Review of Nature-Specific Outdoor Learning on School Children's Learning and Development; Jeff Mann, Tonia Gray, Son Truong, Eric Brymer, Rowena Passy, Susanna Ho, Pasi Sahlberg, Kumara Ward, Peter Bentsen, , Christina Curry, and Rachel Cowper
  2. Mental, physical and social health benefits of immersive nature-experience for children and adolescents: A systematic review and quality assessment of the evidence. . Health Place. Mygind L, Kjeldsted E, Hartmeyer R, Mygind E, Bølling M, Bentsen P (2019) 58:102136. 10.1016/j.healthplace.2019.05.014 [PubMed] [CrossRef] [Google Scholar]
  3. Your Brain on Nature: The Science of Nature's Influence on Your Health, Happiness and Vitality. Selhub EM, Logan AC. (2012). Canada: John Wiley and Sons. [Google Scholar]
  4. Mental health benefits of interactions with nature in children and teenagers: a systematic review. Tillmann S, Tobin D, Avison W, Gilliland J. J Epidemio Commun Health. (2018) 72:958–66. 10.1136/jech-2018-210436 [PMC free article] [PubMed] [CrossRef] [Google Scholar]
  5. Let the Children Play: How More Play Will Save Our Schools And Help Children Thrive. Sahlberg P, Doyle W. Oxford: Oxford University Press; (2019). [Google Scholar]
  6. Nature and Children’s Health: A Systematic Review. Amber L. Fyfe-Johnson, ND, PhD;Marnie F. Hazlehurst, MS, PhD, Sara P. Perrins, EdM, PhD, Gregory N. Bratman, PhD, Rick Thomas, MESM, MS, Kimberly A. Garrett, MPH, Kiana R. Hafferty, BS, Tess M. Cullaz, BS, BS, Edgar K. Marcuse, MD, MPH, Pooja S. Tandon, MD, MPH

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