Tuning In To Natural Curiosity

24th April 2015

Gill Emmerson sees many benefits in outdoor learning for pre-school children.

The author is Head of Pre-Prep at Edge Grove School (www.edgegrove.com)

Open-air lessons are fast becoming a familiar feature in the school curriculum but we need to start educating and exposing children to learning outdoors from a much younger age. Far from being yet another seasonal ‘learning fad’, outdoor learning provides a much-needed extension to the traditional classroom setting while offering creative learning opportunities in a different environment all year round – and it’s very much here to stay.

Taking children out of their usual surroundings once in a while is good for the soul. Such a change encourages increased independence, engagement, resilience, risk-taking and team work. Running preschool sessions outside also brings children that much closer to nature, giving them space to explore and a front row seat into the outdoors. Some children don’t have an outdoor ‘home life’ with quite so much space and freedom to run around, get muddy, pick up sticks, splash in puddles, kick leaves, climb trees and safely light fires. The introduction of outdoor learning at pre-school age gives everyone access to this type of learning adventure in advance of reception…

Using the outdoors for exploration

Children learn and make progress right from birth and usually when they are in their element. Using the outdoor setting, to explore where and what that ‘element’ might be for every child, is a great way of tuning into their natural curiosity and spirit. Young children should be encouraged take risks, innovate, face a personal or group challenge, acquire new skills and support each other as a team. These skills will also help them socially to form relationships with other children and to start to make sense of decision-making and the world around them.
The Forest School curriculum concept (which many good schools are using today) originates from Denmark. It was discovered that young children built strong foundation skills in communication through effective group work and gained confidence in their own ability following a period of hands-on learning in a woodland environment. These foundations helped them to raise standards in their academic achievements as they progressed through their educational journey at school. The Forest School ethos offers children the opportunity to engage in motivating and achievable tasks. They work with tools, play and learn to develop their own behavioural boundaries; both physical and social.

Best for preschool learning

If you are going to instil the ethos of outdoor learning at preschool age, you need to ensure that it is at the centre or hub of your learning environment. For a school, having a covered, central area outside that is a real focal point for the children is ideal. That way, younger children will see this as an extension of their classroom in the preschool environment and it can be used daily for child-initiated play and the upscaling of learning tasks.

Colour and texture matter because young children are known to positively respond and react to them. Using various bright and colourful resources will engage children in a wide variety of learning activities. Gardens which incorporate colour and texture from fruit and vegetable crops to trees, plants and flowers will inspire young minds whether at school or at home. Likewise, activities such as hosting a fairy garden, creating a builders’ construction yard theme, a junk orchestra (whereby you use junk to create musical instruments) and also sand and water play are all great ways to provide outside space to imagine, learn and explore.

Many schools have large outdoor classrooms today with seating and a raised stage. This type of space is ideal for encouraging drama, hot seating, observation, discussion or simply quiet reflection. Outdoor log circles and storyteller chairs are also becoming a popular inclusion in the preschool setting to encourage the children to form spontaneous storytelling groups. Edge Grove School, for example, created ‘The bug hotel’ which proved to be a very popular project; it was built by the preschool children from natural materials and gave them the opportunity to observe and learn more about different bugs and nature. Most young children enjoy making mud pies, so having a ‘Mud Pie Kitchen’ is also a great idea.
It is important to vary the location and activities for outdoor learning and with due consideration to safety, limit boundaries, rules and structure. An element of exploration and free expression is important.

Ben Evans, Headmaster at Edge Grove School, is a big believer in outdoor learning. “In reality,” he says, “all learning could take place outdoors, regardless of the weather, to take advantage of natural resources. The only consideration is, of course, dressing appropriately. Children can learn a lot from being out in the wind and in cold and wet weather. They see things differently – how does nature cope with the differences between summer and winter? Falling leaves, hibernations, ice on the lake etc. are all effects of the seasons which can be experienced first-hand. Young children also learn certain degrees of independence and important life skills such as how to dress properly for certain weather, how to keep active, how to keep warm when it is cold, how to listen to instructions and carry them out effectively.”

Outdoor learning at home

Parents can help at home too by getting their children used to being outside (whatever the weather) and teaching them to appreciate nature and everything it can tell us, not to mention the importance of looking after the natural world (through recycling, energy use and pollution). Parents can also extend their child’s outdoor learning experience by getting them to help in the garden, growing vegetables in pots and learning to look after them, raking up leaves in the autumn, spotting birds and other animals… they will love it. Take them to farms and animal centres, zoos and safari parks and get outside walking and enjoying the outdoors. It should not be seen as a punishment, but an outdoor adventure.

For those who want to truly immerse themselves in the world of outdoor learning, using a garden at home can be a great place to start. Try to find a small corner in your garden to create a mud pie kitchen, stock it with old pots and pans and gather sticks for stirring. A family log circle in the home garden could also provide an alternative place to have meals together or picnics outside. Equally, collecting junk and turning this into something more creative and exciting is not only good for the environment but it is great fun too.

A breath of fresh air

Children at preschool age should ideally spend one planned learning session outside in each week with a dedicated outdoor coordinator. The key is to merge any outdoor learning within a complete curriculum approach so that the two are not separate; ideally, schools should be adopting a daily all year round outlook which poses the question – could I take this learning outside? This would be a much needed breath of fresh air for the preschool learning environment and one that will benefit all children as they learn and develop throughout their school years.

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