Outdoor learning (part one)

In the wake of the Covid19 pandemic, I’m sure I’m not the only one who has been thinking more and more about outdoor learning and outdoor lessons. When I spoke to families here in Prague, many of them were understandably worried about sending their children back to school once it was deemed to be okay to do so. 

By nature, preschoolers are inquisitive and don’t follow “social distancing” rules and are still learning self-care skills – like getting a tissue when they sneeze, or their nose runs. After being asked for my advice, I couldn’t stop thinking about outdoor learning and how important and useful it is, especially now. 

What is outdoor learning?

Simply put, outdoor learning is lessons, activities, and play that take place outside, in nature, or in the playground. Basically, not in the classroom. There are many benefits of outdoor learning and it can be incorporated into a “normal” school day. Of course there are forest schools which have their entire programs outside, but today I’d like to focus on outdoor learning in a “regular” preschool setting. 

Lessons outside

The last school I worked at had a large outdoor area for the children to play and we were fortunate enough to use it a lot during the summer. You may think that it would be harder to keep a preschooler’s attention outside when there are a lot of distractions, but it made for such fun lessons. We would set up blankets outside on the grass and have circle time. I love for circle to be filled with stories, questions, and talking in general. While outside, the children had even more things to say as they were inspired by the noises, sounds, and smells around them.

In outdoor learning, children and teachers are not constrained by some factors that would make lessons impractical in the classroom. For example, science experiments: last summer we made balloon powered boats and spent the morning building them, filling up a large paddling pool, and experimenting and racing. The children (and I) had so much fun with this activity that just wouldn’t have been possible – or as fun – in the classroom.

Example lessons (featuring a visitor)

Other lessons like gardening are doable within the classroom but children don’t really get to use their senses by touching, handling, and smelling the soil and seeds. Outdoor learning, in this case, allows for a real hands-on experience and for a lot of mess!

Last year, the (wonderfully lovely) grandmother of my student was visiting from Argentina, where she grows fruit and vegetables in her back garden. She came to school that day and led a lesson on planting and growing tomatoes. Once again you may think that, with this not being a person the children knew and there being external distracting factors, the children would not be interested and would rather play. Quite the contrary! The children were captivated as grandma showed each child each step and they were allowed the freedom that would be difficult to achieve within the classroom.

My tomato plant, unfortunately, was blown off the balcony on a windy day. Luckily I still received regular updates from the children on how theirs were growing.

Social skills

One of the main reasons, as I have written in previous posts, that people send their children to preschool is to develop and enhance their social skills. In my previous post about free play, you can see many ways that this is done in the classroom. Social skills are further developed during free play outside and can also be with outdoor learning, without the formalities and constraints that go along with being in the classroom.

When children learn and play outside, they are often more likely to play in groups. Some children who exclusively play with the toy garage alone while in the classroom, are often caught up in a race car game with their peers when playing outside. And those children who love to play mummies and daddies in the classroom? Outside we see them involved in princess rescue games with children they wouldn’t usually play with while inside.

When taking part in outdoor learning and outdoor lessons, children work well in groups as the activities often call for it. Some of my favourite activities for my older students are going to the park to play park bingo, I spy, and treasure hunting for different things in nature. The vast majority of the time, children begin to form groups when looking for different items and talk amongst themselves, without the need for teacher involvement.

Playing outside

To be honest, it is my dream to have my own preschool and, should that happen, I would make sure to spend as much time as possible outside. Being in a capital city, it is especially hard to find a preschool with an outdoor space, but I really think it is invaluable for a child’s preschool experience.

Outside play is a key part of outside learning as there are so many more things to do, see, and explore while outside. Play and exploration can be incorporated into lessons as children can be taught games and sports which instills a sense of competition and confidence. By teaching children how to play outside and to appreciate and understand nature around them, their overall preschool experience is enhanced, and many skills are developed.

Part two

There is a lot to be said about outdoor learning and it would be a shame to condense it too much. For this reason, let’s split this post into two parts…stayed tuned for part two next week.

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