Outdoor learning (part two)

Previously I looked at what outdoor learning is and some of the benefits that this type of program has for preschool children. Today I’d like to look at a few more benefits and how to use them in a preschool daily routine. Who knows? This could end up being a three-parter!

Physical health

This may be the first thing one thinks of when talking about outdoor learning, as the health benefits of stepping outside the classroom are numerous. Children’s exposure to fresh air and the time spent outside can help them burn off energy which isn’t possible in the classroom.

“Teacher talks”

I was recently speaking to my friend and former co-worker about her rather lively class. We talked about the days – which I am sure every parent, guardian, and childcare worker knows very well – when preschoolers are full to the brim with energy. It was agreed that, on these days, there is little to no point in staying in the classroom and expecting children to carry out the day’s activities that you’ve prepared.

The two of us also remarked that we’ve worked alongside teachers in the past who would still try to continue their lesson even though their class – or even just a few members of the class – were restless. Not only, I believe, is the teacher setting themselves up for failure and a sore throat from repeating the same things, but this is so unfair on the children! Let’s remember that we’re not studying for PhDs here…this is preschool!

Always be ready to adjust

Instead of staying in the classroom, what I have done on days like this is go through a quick circle time and then head off outside to burn off some energy. Depending on the theme of the week or that day’s topic, it is possible to adjust the lesson to take place outside.

For example, there have been occasions when a class has been full of energy (which is totally normal and natural for preschoolers) and they weren’t able to concentrate. We have begun to sing some silly songs, or play some games, but the most effective use of their energy was to go outside. If there is a classroom assistant, then they or the teacher can quickly prepare a treasure hunt or print off a game of outdoor bingo, so the children still have some teacher-led time for the day.

Mental health

Being stuck inside (again I will reference Covid19), is hard for everyone. For me during the lockdown here in the Czech Republic, I was less motivated than usual, and a lot more tired.

As an adult, we can rationalise things and this helps us to understand and cope with situations which are as unprecedented as a lockdown, but we must think about how hard this is for children. Without there being something tangible to understand, an abstract situation like “we have to stay inside for the foreseeable future”, can be very difficult for children to comprehend.

With Covid19, we had to stay inside. In preschool, it should not be the same! As I wrote last week, there are not a lot of preschools here in Prague that have private outdoor space. Having only worked in schools with outdoor space, this is hard for me to get my head around.

Above, I speak about the physical health benefits of outdoor learning, but what about the mental benefits? As well as boosting cognitive development – with the use of different materials, tools, and resources only found outside the classroom, outdoor learning helps preschoolers feel more free and more confident in their abilities as they are allowed to explore and create without being told what to do by a teacher or adult.

Confidence and problem solving

On one occasion, a few children were making an “ice cream stand” in the sandpit while a lot more were running around. Some other children came and knocked all the “ice cream” off the shelf the children were serving from and one was very upset. My small friend went over to the runners and explained to them that they had made another friend sad because they had knocked the sand over and that they should be more careful next time. The runners took this and apologised while myself and my co-workers looked on, very impressed to see the confidence of this child as she stood up for her friend.

As the children were not inside and under the strict watchful eye of a teacher, this child found the confidence to become the teacher herself.

Fine motor skills

Outdoor learning can help develop both fine and gross motor skills in preschoolers and, once again, this is in a way that is not possible within the classroom. Children develop some of their motor skills at different speeds and different ages depending on a variety of factors. Outside learning allows children to develop these skills while not even realising they are doing so.

In the classroom

Concerning the development of fine motor skills, it can often be seen that some preschoolers are loath to practise in the classroom. Playing with puzzles, sensory tables, and colouring pictures are great fine motor activities but only if the child has an interest in them. 

Outside the classroom

When outside, children develop their fine motor skills without even realising it! The children who love to run and explore may find a beetle or a spider and then try to pick it up, understanding that they should use “soft hands” to handle creatures. A child who doesn’t really enjoy puzzles may see flowers and pick them to make a daisy chain or just to collect them as a present for their parents.

There are endless opportunities for developing fine motor skills with outdoor learning and activities to do so are easy to add to a lesson plan. Park bingo needs children to circle the item they have found or to stick a sticker onto their bingo card, collecting flowers to make a witch’s brew needs dexterous fingers, and making mud pies in mud kitchens needs well-developed hand and arm strength.

Gross motor skills

I’m sure you saw this one coming, but let me ask you a question: how much can children run around, climb, cycle, or dance when they’re confined to a classroom? Even if they can, it can be dangerous to take part in such activities indoors, with a lack of space just being one of the factors.

When a preschool or childcare centre has an outside area, I think it is such a waste to not use it as much as possible! My dad always used to say: “there’s no such thing as bad weather, just bad clothing”. I have met a lot of international families who are not used to children going outside during the cold winters here in Prague but are sold once they see their children’s red cheeks and hear the stories about their outdoor learning that day.

When left to their own devices outside, children run. They race, they play tag, they play cops and robbers (or whichever variant it is that day). I love to see the children involved in some form of competition where they organise races by themselves, whether it be on foot, scooter, or bicycle.

While inside, children cannot race, in fact, we speak about this a lot with children: it is much safer to walk while inside. Inside, activities like running, climbing, or learning to ride a bike are either impractical, impossible, or dangerous. Outside, however, there are endless opportunities for these activities.

A real life example

I have a friend who works in a school with a large tree in the garden. This tree has branches that are low enough for the children to climb up independently. He told me that many teachers had requested the tree be cut down or the branches removed so that children could not climb it, so that there would be no danger of them falling. Understandable, of course. But what about teaching children how to climb the tree safely? What about giving them the freedom to explore by themselves? What about helping strengthen their gross motor skills by teaching them how to support their own weight while climbing a tree?

My friend, fortunately, won the argument about the tree and it still stands in the school playground, where children love climbing and exploring by themselves.

I mention above that learning in different environments can be more interesting for children and they do things outside that they wouldn’t be interested in in the classroom. It’s the same for gross motor skills!

(One more) real life example

I’ve had a few children over the years who hated walking. They would complain about having to walk while going to the playground, request to be carried when going on trips (aged five!), and sometimes just stop in their tracks when they’d walked just a few meters. With those children – some of whom still came to school in their prams at four years old – we took it slowly. We’d have activities to keep us occupied while walking: like “I-Spy”. We’d have races to the top of the hills so the children wouldn’t be as aware of the different inclines. We’d play “we’re going on a bear hunt” and have the children who didn’t like walking take the lead! 

All these activities encouraged those children to unconsciously develop their gross motor skills, have a greater interest in running, jumping, and climbing, and, in some cases, really helped their physical fitness – which is something we’ll discuss soon.

Part three

As suspected, this is another long post. It looks like part three will be coming next week, then, when I’ll look at independence, creativity, inquisitiveness, and focus with regard to outdoor learning.

I hope you all can spend lots of time outside between now and then and are inspired by some of the ideas in these posts. Enjoy your outdoor learning!

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