A child’s early learning experiences can occur both indoors and outdoors. In fact, according to the Child Mind Institute, outdoor play and nature build confidence, promote creativity and imagination, teach responsibility, encourage physical activity, and reduce stress and fatigue.
While we know that outdoor environments are highly beneficial to children, as a child care provider, you may be wondering how you can foster a safe and beneficial outdoor environment for activities. After years in the child care industry, here are our tips for creating a superior outdoor learning environment.
What Are The Benefits Of Outdoor Activities For Children?
As mentioned above, outdoor play is highly beneficial for children in a variety of ways. Let’s dive deeper into the reasons why outdoor play is so important for child development.
Better Physical Health
Quite simply, outdoor environments encourage movement and provide a large space for children to play, move and explore. Conversely, indoor environments typically have some restrictions on movement and play. As stated by a post published in Harvard Health Publishing, children need at least one hour of physical exercise a day. In fact, the same article posits that an outdoor environment is one way to guarantee that this happens.
Vitamin D Production
Vitamin D is an important vitamin for bone and muscle health by helping the body absorb calcium and phosphate from foods. Unfortunately, it’s difficult for a child to get vitamin D from foods as it doesn’t exist in large enough quantities in common foods. Luckily, however, it is easy for a child to produce vitamin D when exposed to the sun.
While there is a concern for sun protection, outdoor play can be encouraged during times with low UV-index with skin uncovered. If this is not possible, sunscreen on exposed skin will help to block the child’s exposure to the sun while still encouraging the production of vitamin D.
Time in nature, whether it is a walk or unorganized play, has shown to be a factor in better recovery from stress. While time outdoors provides temporary stress relief, over time children will be able to build resilience to stress with the implementation of consistent time outdoors.
Attention and Cognitive Abilities
When allowed to enjoy free play, children have been known to pay more attention to academic tasks, according to an article published in Parenting Science. While free play can occur indoors, outdoor free play adds so many other benefits (stress relief, physical exercise and sensory stimulation) that can make the time spent outdoors that much more valuable.
Outdoor play promotes problem-solving and creativity in children. When left to their own devices, children can be incredibly creative with whatever is in their environment. With the introduction of unstructured play outside, children are able to use their imaginations more freely. For example, natural loose materials such as sticks, stones, sand and plant materials can transform into something completely different in the hands of children.
Stronger Verbal and Social Skills
Research suggests that outdoor play can encourage better impulse control and reduce aggression in children, which leaves room for better social interactions and improved verbal skills. Part of the factors that affect a child’s social skills is exercise. As mentioned above, outdoor environments encourage exercise in children, which in turn increases blood flow to the brain and stimulates neurotransmitters that are needed for learning and attention, as well as improved mood.
By positively affecting a child’s mood, children are more easily able to interact with each other in constructive and collaborative ways, with reduced aggression and increased happiness.
Nature is full of sights and sounds. Outdoor play exposes children to vibrant natural colors and different noises and therefore fosters an appreciation for these new sensory experiences. In addition, nature expands a child’s sense of space and scale with the introduction of a new environment that is as dynamic and expansive as the outdoors.
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How To Create The Right Outdoor Learning Environment
There are a variety of steps that you as a child care provider can take to make the outdoor play environment as beneficial as possible:
- Create an action plan that incorporates structured and unstructured play.
- Enable easy access and reduce barriers so children learn that there aren’t barriers to playing outdoors.
- Ensure suitable surfacing to avoid tripping and injury hazards.
- Keep your outdoor space safe from harmful tools or other hazards (such as chemicals).
- Plan outdoor activities carefully and allow enough uninterrupted time in the schedule.
- Create different outdoor learning areas.
- Be active with children to model a variety of ways to enjoy outdoor play.
- Listen to the children’s feedback, learn and adjust to their needs when necessary.
What To Do Before Children Arrive And When They Are Present
Before children arrive, it’s important to have the environment set up in a way that encourages play while reducing the risk of injury or unsafe play. This is where your action plan comes into play. With a plan for both structured and unstructured activities, you will be able to assess what materials are needed. From there, outline any instructions that you might need for structured play. In addition, some rules for children’s safety and constructive collaboration are also a good idea to layout so you can educate them before play begins.
Before they arrive, you can also set out equipment, such as a ball or a bike to signal to the child that play is encouraged and very easily ensures that the child will participate in physical activity.
When the children are present, provide a space that encourages curiosity, creativity and collaboration. At this point you will want to speak with the children regarding your safety rules and, for times of structured play, you will also want to let the children know about any activity instructions and rules.
As mentioned above, adult modeling is a fantastic way to show children how to play outdoors. With that in mind, we recommend that you play with them for at least a short period of time when they are present.
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