When I ask the young children at my provision to find their wellies and coats, they rush to find them because they are always ready for an outdoor adventure. Learning outdoors is not only great fun for children and carers, it has also been proven to boost confidence and motivation and to help develop social skills, physical skills, knowledge and understanding.
The outdoors can enhance every aspect of learning in the early years foundation stage. When planning an outdoor space, think about how the children will explore, experiment, imagine and engage. As Helen Tovey explains in her book ‘Playing Outdoors’: the outdoor environment should be a “dynamic living place constantly changing as children and adults transform it. It is not a static predetermined layout to which children have to adapt, nor is it just a scenic backdrop for a series of activities, rather it is a domain that takes shape as children inhabit it.”
Listen to the children and find out what they like to play with. Using their ideas and perspectives will help you create an area that they will take ownership of and their ideas may be totally different to your own.
Providing a stimulating outdoor experience does not need to cost the earth. Here are some simple ideas for you to try in your own setting.
Increase physical skills through active play
Children love to explore, balance and climb outdoors. When I had to have a large tree cut down it transformed the back corner of the garden into an adventureland. Large flat logs became something to climb on and then they became a kitchen area where they mixed up mud and grass pies. Then the water came and they poured bucket after bucket of water onto them to become a laboratory of slime and interesting substances!
We also used some of the smaller logs to build play towers. These help to develop the children’s strength, balance, coordination and fine motor skills and also gives lots of scope to develop young imaginations!
Encourage communication and language outdoors
I always look for opportunities to use outdoor space to create calm, imaginative spaces to encourage a love of reading and appreciation of language.
Using your knowledge of each child means that you can pitch the learning so it is appropriate to the age and stage of each child. For example, placing dinosaurs amongst the logs for the children to discover was a fantastic way of introducing a dinosaur story. I adapted the activity so it was offered something for all ages: we matched the dinosaurs to cards and then with the older children we learnt about the type of dinosaur and interesting facts about them. We then counted the dinosaurs and discussed how big they were or how long their tails were compared to each other.
We also love using the outdoor space for ‘rhyme time’ or singing. Using inspiration from the outdoor space around us, we use rhythm and rhyme to help the children develop a love of language and enjoy the patterns and rhythms that we make together.
Develop literacy and mathematics through active fun
Using simple markings using sticks and stones is a great way to develop mathematics and literacy skills, whilst also developing imagination, teamwork and coordination skills.
Number sequencing games, with jumping and hopping along a ‘number snake’ introduces counting forwards and backwards. I find this really useful as it helps children to experience physically moving forward or backwards to discover what ‘one more’ or ‘one less’ feels like.
Being outside also presents opportunities for children to learn that they can count things that are not tangible: such as the number of times they are pushed on the swing or the number of hops and skips when playing Hopscotch. And we always enjoy a game of “What’s the time Mr Wolf” - through these playful interactions, the children are learning to count.
Use outdoor play to enhance personal, social and emotional skills
The outdoors is an amazing resource for encouraging team work and building confidence. One recent exercise involved children working co-operatively together to make a super den, inspired by the dens we’ve seen on our trips to local woods. This provided a great opportunity for the children to all put their ideas forward and then work collaboratively to carefully place the branches into position.
Once they had made the den, it transformed into a special place for them to chatter away to each other. It was a fantastic demonstration of how playing outdoors can build their self-esteem and confidence.
Enjoy exploring your outdoor environment and using it to help your children to learn and have fun.
For more information and ideas on using the great outdoors to support early years learning, you can see some of the further reading available to PACEY members, including some planned activities and advice from other industry experts...
PACEY's Summer Activities
'Nurture Little Explorers': An Interview with CBBC's Naomi Wilkinson
Spotlight On: Outdoor Activities