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The Power of Nature: Outdoor Play that Supports Learning and Development

Sep 22, 2022    |   Outdoor & Sensory Play

Spending time in nature is a critical component of any early learning program. Young children love being outside, getting messy, and exploring the natural environment around them. But, did you know that in addition to having fun, children are actually learning a variety of skills that support learning and development when they play in nature? In this article, we explore the benefits of outdoor play and why it is so important for young children.  

How Outdoor Play Supports Learning & Development

  • Playing outdoors promotes creativity and imagination.  

When children play outside, they interact with their surroundings in a way that is open-ended and unstructured.  Imagination comes into play as children think about new ways to interact with natural objects and materials. An article posted on the Child Mind Institute website explains that outdoor play encourages children to “interact meaningfully with their surroundings. They can think more freely, design their own activities, and approach the world in inventive ways.” 

  • Being in nature supports social and emotional development. 

When children play outside, they can interact with their peers in different ways than they do indoors. They can create make-believe games together and support one another as they try new activities such as riding bikes or climbing large play structures. These interactions offer experience in important social development activities such as forming friendships, communicating ideas, and collaborating with peers.  

Being in nature encourages children to find ways to care for their environment, by watering plants, picking up trash, feeding birds, and more. These experiences help children develop their ability to nurture and empathize with other living beings, and to take responsibility for shared community spaces. 

  • Spending time outside supports health and wellness. 

Being outside allows children to move their bodies by running, jumping, climbing, and exploring – all of which support physical fitness and the development of motor skills.  Active, outdoor play imporoves circulation, increases oxygen flow to the brain, and enhances exposure to Vitamin D, which supports health and immunity. 

Meghan Fitzgerald, an educator and founder of Tinkergarten, describes another important benefit of outdoor play, “Time spent in natural settings also contributes to healthy sleep patterns in babies, toddlers, and kids. And proper sleep drives all kinds of beneficial health outcomes.” 

  • Nature helps to relieve stress.

    Have you ever noticed how going outside with young children can turn a bad day around? Spending time in greenery and fresh air helps children to feel calm and peaceful; it can be the perfect way to reset when children seem particularly stressed or on edge. An article from UC Berkeley’s Greater Good Science Center notes that when children are able to learn, play, and relax in natural environments, they are able to build resiliency and increase their sense of self-worth.

  • Playing outside brings joy! 

    Children love opportunities to get messy, run, play, and be active.  And, playing outside is fun! From splashing in puddles to chasing bubbles, being in nature encourages children to be loud, free, and inquisitive. They get to enjoy sensory experiences like the feeling of squishy mud in their hands or soft grass between their toes. Taking children outside is the perfect way to provide engaging, deep-learning experiences in a natural and accessible way!

How Educators can Support Outdoor Learning

Supporting outdoor play and learning can be as simple as taking the children in your care on a nature walk, or encouraging them to explore the environment right outside your front door!  You might also consider what materials you have available in your outdoor space. Providing tools that enhance exploration, such as shovels, buckets, and magnifying glasses, can help you create engaging and enriching outdoor experiences.

The language that we use with children can spark conversations about nature, and support a child’s sense of exploration and discovery. PennState University’s  Better Kid Care website offers some helpful suggestions: “It is important to observe where and what the children are interested in and support those interests by asking open-ended questions. What did you discover? How does it feel? What does it look like? How does it move? What should we do? Ask questions that will encourage the children to observe and to describe their observations.”

No-Cost Outdoor Activities

One of the best things about nature is that it’s free…and it’s all around us! For new ways to enjoy nature with the children in your care, you might enjoy some of the following no-cost outdoor activities:

  • Have a picnic! Grab a blanket and bring your afternoon snack outside! Find a quiet, shady place for children to sit while they enjoy their food. As children eat, you might encourage them to notice clouds moving in the sky or birds flying overhead. These simple observations can help children to become more in tune with nature, while also enjoying a peaceful and relaxing meal time with their peers.

  • Go bird watching. Take the children in your care outside to see what kinds of birds you can find! You might even bring out paper and coloring materials and encourage the children to draw the different kinds of birds that they see. Compare the size, shape, and colors of each of the birds and ask children questions about the birds, such as what they think the birds might eat and how the birds build their nests. This type of observation and inquiry sparks curiosity and builds critical thinking skills.

  • Go on a scavenger hunt. Encourage the children in your care to explore the yard outside and look for natural objects they can find in your space, like a colorful leaf, an acorn, a rock, or a pinecone.  After they’re done, these items can be used for a variety of art projects and activities. Check out these G2K articles from the archives for more inspiration:

  • Play games.  Outdoor open spaces provide an ideal environment for playing games with the children in your care.  Simple games like Freeze Tag, Red Light-Green Light, and Simon Says encourage movement, listening, and the development of motor skills.

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