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Hot Take: Exploring the benefits of outdoor education

Hot Take: Exploring the benefits of outdoor education

Since the lockdown eased there has been a massive increase in forest schools and settings using their outdoor spaces for learning. In this hot take, Briony Richter highlights the strong link between outdoor learning and the development of essential skills for children

Outdoor learning has become a huge part of early years provision and there are many ways to embed it into your activities and wider vision at your nursery. The evidence and expert guidance make it clear that the outdoor environment offers motivating, exciting, different, relevant and easily accessible activities from early years and all the way through a child’s education journey.

Forest schools

The concept of a Forest school was developed in Scandinavia in the 1950s as a way of teaching children about the natural world and forming education around that.

The world's first known Forest school was created by Ella Flautau in Denmark in 1952. Her inspiration came directly from her community when her and her neighbours’ children started coming together outside daily. The parents led by Flautau formed a group and created an initiative to establish "walking kindergartens" out of the Waldorf-Steiner approach to education which is child-led and play-based.

By the 1980s they had become an integral part of early years education many parts of Scandinavia and in the 90s the concept started growing across the UK.

Key features of a Forest school

Forest schools differ from other methods of outdoor learning in that learning isn’t focused on academic inquiry but instead led in a more unstructured way and following each individual child’s interests.

The main features you’ll find include:

  • A safe woodland setting,
  • An outdoor learning focus towards curriculum
  • A high level of adult supervision
  • Regular visits to the forest and freedom to explore
  • Woodland equipment and items for outdoor activities readily available.

These key features mean that the environment being used is most importantly safe but also delivers a stimulating and creative learning space for children to follow their own interests and develop a curiosity about nature and the world around them.


The benefits of outdoor learning

Of course, outdoor learning can take many forms and many nurseries have incorporated elements of the Forest school methodology to their model, working on both indoor and outdoor provision.

In Scotland, the curriculum for excellence through outdoor learning promotes and delivers updated guidance on the opportunities presented by spending more time outdoors.

It states: “Curriculum for Excellence offers opportunities for all children and young people to enjoy first-hand experience outdoors. Such experiences motivate our children and young people to become successful learners and to develop as healthy, confident, enterprising and responsible citizens.”

Some key benefits include:

  • Health and wellbeing
    Learning outdoors can lead to lifelong recreation. Activities such as walking and cycling which are ideal for physical and emotional wellbeing contribute to a healthier population in the future
  • Sustainability
    Frequent and regular outdoor learning encourages children and young people to engage with the natural and built heritage. Being out in the countryside, the beach or garden provide the ideal setting for children to understand the importance of sustainability.
  • Confidence
    Engaging in outdoor play introduces children to new situations and encourages them to take positive risks and try new things at their own pace. By following this, children independently test their own abilities and learn new skills. This then leads naturally to stronger self-awareness and a sense of independence.
  • Community focus
    Outdoor learning connects families and the community to the school. Outdoor classrooms provide natural entry points for families and community members to get involved with student learning. The relationships developed through outdoor learning lead to greater parental and community involvement in and support for the school.
  • Inclusivity
    All children are unique and come from various backgrounds and environments. We know that for many, the ways they learn don’t always fit inside a classroom. The outdoors gives far more scope for inclusive activities and can offer a space that feels less constrained and restricted.


Creating activities for outdoor learning

“If children don’t grow up knowing about nature and appreciating it, they will not understand it. And if they don’t understand it, they won’t protect it. And if they don’t protect it, who will?”- Sir David Attenborough

There are many things to take into consideration when planning for outdoor learning and as much as we like to complain about the weather in the UK, that’s not a reason to avoid the outdoors. In fact, getting out into the rain offers just as much fun if you think creatively and safely.

To begin with, have an open mind to new ideas and a flexible approach to learning. You have a complete blank canvas in the outdoors. You can use the resources around you to build dens, learn about wildlife, draw the surroundings, have a picnic for snack time and bring blankets for storytelling.

Find out about beaches or woodland areas nearby and contact your local authority who can help with getting a day trip planned.

Furthermore, in line with being sustainable, re-use some of items you already have in your nursery. You can bring equipment and some furniture outdoors on a nice day and set up sensory spaces using what you would already use indoors.

Integrating learning and outdoor experiences, whether through play in the immediate grounds or adventures further afield, provides relevance and depth to the curriculum in ways that are different and often difficult to achieve indoors.

Outdoor learning activities can be fun, creative, challenging and adventurous and all can support children’s development which enables them to grow as confident and responsible individuals.


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