Learning happens both indoors and outdoors. Looking closer into the critical role of outdoor environments in children’s learning and development, we’ll see that the outdoors expose children to a rich and diverse range of opportunities to explore and learn.
As a matter of fact, the National Quality Standard Quality Area 3 highlights the importance of having an inclusive physical environment for early childhood learning centres. Indoor and outdoor spaces must be designed and adapted to enable children to engage in quality experiences both in built and natural environments.
What are outdoor learning environments?
An outdoor learning environment can be described as an area that provides young children with an environment conducive to physical activities, social interactions, and imaginative play, which are all important for reaching a children’s learning and development goals. A physical environment with a quiet space and open-ended materials can potentially promote children’s learning and support children’s current interests.
Benefits of an outdoor learning environment in childcare
The outdoor physical environment offers different play and learning opportunities that are not possible indoors due to its unique properties and stimuli.
It allows children to explore more. The layout of the outdoor learning environment will change how children play and learn. Small spaces allow for quiet, small group play and individual play. Large, open spaces encourage loud play and larger groups.
In outdoor settings, children sit less and participate in more sustained play for longer periods. Outdoor learning environments, especially natural outdoor learning environments, allow for opportunities for open-ended interaction, spontaneity, exploration, and discovery. They also provide a sense of connection to nature.
When you support and encourage children to explore an outdoor space such as a park or playground, children learn to form friendships with other children in the space. The outdoors is indeed a social environment that provides children room to develop stronger social and verbal capabilities as they create their own experiences through play with other children in their age group.
It’s ideal for parents and families to arrange regular outdoor playdates or find a childcare provider that offers indoor and outdoor learning environments for children in their care. A well-arranged environment is as important as a well-planned educational program to a child’s learning goals.
Outdoor play increases children’s sense of self-awareness as well as their awareness of others and their feelings. As they engage with other children, a child learns to find common interests with their peers, the art of fostering good relationships, building teamwork and interacting positively with other kids their age.
Spatial awareness and hand-eye coordination
One of the most important things families should consider when looking for an early childhood care provider is the availability of space outdoors. The experiences children have while playing outside have a profound impact on their brain development.
Playing in learning environments outdoors provides a child with the opportunity to experience the world with their senses. Depending on the location, open environments can heighten a child’s senses through smells, textures, light, and noise.
Young children are learning through their surroundings. Children who play outside are more likely to move in ways that challenge their muscles, bones, and strength. Having safe and welcoming spaces allow children to increase physical activity–they can run, jump, swing and move more freely.
Having adequate learning areas to explore for large movements is critical in the development of a child’s spatial awareness, cooperation, communication and sensory awareness.
Playing in an outdoor space offers children the opportunity to practice their physical abilities and develop better motor coordination such as balance and agility. Outdoor play can help develop both fine and gross motor skills.
Creativity and imagination
Beyond classroom sessions, art materials or art classes, playing and learning through open-ended materials help a child broaden their interest areas. Encouraging a child to learn outside of the room is an integral part of promoting learning as they freely explore physical environments that are rich in resources enhancing their multisensory experiences.
Even without tangible materials or resources, a child’s cooperative, creative and imaginative play is nurtured in an outdoor physical environment. Being away from the constraints of a room supports a child’s creative side – they invent games, build art, create activities and enjoy more.
Playing with educational toys and materials in the outdoors gives a child an opportunity to learn new information. It teaches them that learning is not confined to traditional classroom learning environments.
Early childhood learning and development through outdoor environment is important. The independence of a child begins to develop when exposed to outdoor learning spaces. When children feel safe in the outdoor space, they begin to explore which leads to developing their decision making power, their ability to share, their conceptual ability and overcoming their fears.
Running outside is a great way for kids to make up games, explore the world around them and experience feelings of independence. Besides the development of their autonomy, the outdoor learning space support a child’s ability to cultivate their organizational abilities and accountability as they work individually and with their peers to create games, solve problems and implement their ideas and solutions. This also allows children to program their minds to learn the importance of creating and following rules.
Exposure to natural resources is linked with self-regulation. There are studies with well-documented evidence that support how physical activity in natural environments significantly improves positive emotions, self-esteem and behaviour. A green environment has a positive impact on both the physical and mental health of children.
Other physical and mental health benefits include vitamin D production from sunlight, better concentration, less impulsivity, lower stress levels and a decrease in anxiety symptoms which are all important during early childhood.
Resources in an outdoor learning environment
Outdoor learning environments should have creative and exploratory elements such as sandpits, waterways, rock formations, textured plants, and varied ground surfaces like grass, and pebbles.
Accessible playgrounds, gardens, natural materials, sand and waterplay encourage exploration and creativity. These items in the environment provide a supply of natural loose parts that children can use in their imaginative and symbolic play.
It’s also ideal that the service has common areas for staff, families and children. The outdoor space must consider the adults in the environment. It needs to be comfortable for adults as they supervise their children. Social spaces such as dens, cubbies, platforms, and amphitheatres are great for gathering children and adults.
Including special features can provide additional opportunities for play-based learning. There might be references to culture to show how diverse the children and community are as well as aesthetic and artistic elements.
It is very important to have a space that demonstrates cultural diversity and respect for other cultures. This can be done by using and displaying resources and materials from local communities and other countries.
Finding the right childcare
When finding the right childcare, it is a given that parents go for services that offer a good educational program. Understanding the benefits of outdoor environments to a child’s learning and development, parents should also be on the lookout for centres with a good variety of resources, outdoor areas, and materials to provide quality inclusive play opportunities and support learning experiences.