Using nature to nurture on Outdoor Classroom Day

Published on Tuesday, 05 November 2019
Last updated on Tuesday, 31 December 2019

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Join the big kids this November 7 for Outdoor Classroom Day, a global campaign to embrace the fun and benefits of getting outside to play and learn.

Outdoor Classroom Day encourages educators to celebrate and inspire children through outdoor play-based learning and can be held on any suitable day in early November.

Currently this initiative is aimed at school-aged children but it only needs a few age-appropriate tweaks to make it fun and enriching for younger children.

More than 3.5 million school children from all over the world were involved in last year's event, taking the opportunity to venture outside for education and play. As the Outdoor Classroom Day website states, 'We want to make people understand that spending time outdoors is as important for children's development as learning to read and write. We want to show how learning outside of the classroom engages and excites children in spectacular ways. We want everyone to understand that outdoor play is the key to improving children's health, wellbeing and happiness. We want to make it clear that outdoor play is not a 'nice to have', it is essential for children's development.'

Getting outdoors and closer to nature is an integral part of childhood and the benefits extend beyond the exposure to fresh air, fun and exploration with many studies showing that spending more time outdoors is a necessity.

A survey for 'outdoor learning and play at schools around the world' titled, Muddy Hands found that:

  • Getting outdoors connects us to the places we live and the environments we want to protect
  • Getting outdoors results in better learning outcomes, across the board
  • The benefits of outdoor learning and play last beyond early education
  • Outdoor learning and play create healthier, more active children
  • Time spent outdoors boosts mental health

While some early childhood education providers such as 'forest or bush schools' spend the majority of their time learning outdoors every day, it is not difficult to build more outdoor opportunities into any daily routine.

Outside learning doesn't need to be overly structured or planned; interacting with nature can be as simple as exploring the playground with a magnifying glass, scooping mud or bird and bug watching. With a little organisation and a risk assessment the experience can be extended to an exploratory excursion to a nature reserve or local park.

Getting outside and engaging with the outdoor environment delivers benefits that last well beyond early education. A recent study found preschool children who enjoyed large amounts of outdoor time scored better on standardised tests for executive function, attention and short-term memory than children with fewer outdoor hours in the school day and continued to score better at primary school.

Encouraging young children to engage in nature play builds confidence, improves health, and provides multi-sensory stimulations and according to the Attention Restoration Theory, natural environments may also reduce stress and fatigue. This theory proposes that urban environments require what's called directed attention, which exhausts our brains. Whereas, we practice an effortless type of attention known as soft fascination that creates feelings of pleasure not fatigue in natural environments.

Children today spend significantly less time outdoors than they did a generation ago. Even children in the early years suffer from pressures such as overscheduling, too much screen time and too little activity and outdoor play may help to remedy this.

Activities for babies and toddlers on Outdoor Classroom Day

Very young children benefit tremendously from outside play, ensure they are in a safe, shady spot and try these fun outdoor activities:

  • Bubble play
    Bubbles are pure magic for infants and can provide endless opportunities for wonder. If children are too young to blow their own bubbles they will love watching these colourful spheres float and pop.
  • Water play
    Make a splash using a shallow basin or trough and add a boat, a cup, a sponge or even something slimy to stimulate their senses. Try rubber ducks and team it with the 'five little ducks' nursery rhyme.
  • Sensory play
    Collect and use natural objects, such as leaves, feathers, flowers, herbs, grass, smooth river stones (large enough so it’s not a choking hazard) for a sensory experience and describe what they are doing, feeling, seeing and smelling.

Adapting Outdoor School Day for preschoolers

Here's a preschool spin on Outdoor School Day activities:

  • Clay faces
    Ask children to collect items from nature in the playground, backyard or local park – design a visual scavenger hunt list including leaves, seed pods, flowers, twigs etc. Clay can be sourced from an art shop, pottery supplier or make your own.

    Create faces by flattening the clay and demonstrating how to push the collected objects into it. Discuss what the objects and clay feel like while creating art.
  • Texture walk
    Using any accessible outdoor area, take children for a walk to discover different textures. Help them with words to describe what they find. You can even create a sensory walking path using items like wet newspaper, sponges, sand, bubble wrap, dried beans, cushions etc.
  • Sponge bullseye
    Be ready to get wet and a bit messy. Locate some open space and using chalk, draw a target with concentric circles (for different point scoring) then add a few buckets of water, some sponges and get the kids in teams to start throwing!

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