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Outdoor learning offers engaging learning opportunities that boost students’ social and emotional, physical, and cognitive development.

7 principles of outdoor learning for early childhood

Taking learning outside provides unique and engaging learning opportunities that boost students’ social and emotional, physical, and cognitive development

By Jennifer Fernández, School Specialty May 7th, 2024

Key points:

Spending time outdoors and engaging in active play has all kinds of benefits for young children. It encourages gross motor skill development, helps improve coordination and balance, and can contribute to reducing childhood obesity. Time outside provides an opportunity to soak up sunlight and vitamin D, and boosts immune systems by exposing children to allergens.

Outdoor activity even helps to prevent nearsightedness by giving children distant sights to focus on. It allows students to use all their senses, encourages creativity and concentration, and develops social and emotional skills as learning occurs in new and engaging ways. Also, when children go outside, it can help them understand how to care for the environment and learn not to be afraid of nature. To help you nurture these many positive outcomes and make the most of time outside with your students, here are seven principles of outdoor learning.

1. The outdoor area is a primary learning environment.

    The first principle of outdoor learning is that the outdoors can be just as effective a learning environment as an indoor classroom. Outdoor learning will look different than indoor learning, and not everyone will do it the same, but almost anything that can be learned inside can be learned outside.

    Think about the centers you have in your classroom right now, for example. How many of them can be replicated outside? Setting up a mud kitchen can serve as the dramatic play center. A picnic table or outdoor easel would make a great art center. A reading area could be as simple as a basket of books on a blanket with a couple of pillows. I even saw a child development center collect old milk crates to use with a collection of weatherproof blocks for a variety of stacking and building options in their outdoor block area.

    2. Children need to take the lead in their own learning.

      On a day-to-day basis, parents generally pick out their childrens’ clothing, select what they will eat, and choose when they go to bed. Young children may often feel like they don’t get to make many choices in their own lives. Therefore, when teachers give students choice about what activity they will engage in, who they will play with, and what materials they will use, they have more interest and intrinsic motivation to learn.

      Going outside is a natural time for children to begin exploring and indulging their curiosity–in other words, taking the lead in their learning. This supports children’s efforts toward independence and makes learning enjoyable and exciting. That said, they still need adults interested in their play and available to scaffold their learning. By observing, listening, and asking open-ended questions, teachers support and guide children’s learning without taking over. For example, if a child is trying to balance on a rock, the teacher can gently assist, holding their hand as they steady themselves, until they are ready and able to handle it on their own.

      3. Educators have prepared a full range of materials and activities.

        Outdoor learning areas don’t have supply closets like your classroom does, so when you’re planning an outdoor lesson, consider what materials you’ll need and how you’ll get them outside. Some logistical questions to consider might be:

        • Do you have a cart to transport materials, or could the students help carry materials outdoors?
        • Do you have a place outside to store equipment after you’re done, or do you need to bring it back inside?
        • Do you need to take carpet squares, floor cushions, or a blanket outside to sit on?
        • Will children be doing any drawing or writing that might require bringing some clipboards outside?

        4. Activities are intentional and relate to the curriculum.

          Outdoor learning usually has more structure than recess and will often mimic what happens in the classroom. Aligning your time outdoors with your state’s learning standards or the curriculum you follow ensures that time spent outside is helping children meet their learning goals.

          This, again, goes back to planning. Look at your learning objectives and ask if you can accomplish them with what’s available outside. If not, what do you need to bring? Essentially, you’re trying to accomplish the same goals as in class, but in a different setting and with different materials. It sounds simple, but if it’s new to you, it may take some practice and a bit of a mind shift before it feels comfortable.

          5. Students have opportunities for physical activity and movement.

            I recently visited a school where the STEAM specialist was outside with a group of four-year-olds. They were flying paper airplanes they made. As they worked to make their airplanes fly, children ran freely around the courtyard area measuring how far they flew and making hypotheses about why one airplane went farther than another.

            For some teachers, it might have felt out of control and chaotic, but if you recognize the benefits of the physical movement opportunity, as well as the learning embedded in the activity, you can see the impact of moments like these. Also, we need to remember the importance of pre-planning, setting expectations, and modeling appropriate behaviors for these types of activities to help make sure learning occurs and that it doesn’t just become a free-for-all.

            Measuring how far students jump, engaging in an outdoor scavenger hunt, or collecting items to create nature collages are all ideas for incorporating movement aligned with a variety of learning objectives. Children will be physically active, practicing academic skills, and having fun all at the same time!

            6. There is a focus on environmental stewardship to develop a connection to the natural world.

              Outdoor learning allows students to develop a connection with the natural world. They are our future business leaders, scientists, and environmentalists, and the time they spend learning outdoors may open the door to them asking for the first time, “What happens if we don’t care for our environment? How can we live in harmony with it?”

              When I was young, the phrase, “Give a hoot, don’t pollute,” was a popular media slogan. We really took it to heart! Not only did we avoid littering when outdoors, but we made sure to clean up any garbage we encountered in an effort to keep our world clean. As teachers, we now have the opportunity and the responsibility to instill the importance of caring for our environment. A simple yet effective activity I often did with my young students was to become “pollution detectives.” Every student would get a small bag, and we would walk the grounds of our school in search of litter. Not only were we improving the environment, but as children ran from one piece of trash to another, they were enjoying themselves and engaging in healthy physical activity.

              7. Students have opportunities for learning in, about, and with nature.

                The differences between learning in, about, and with nature are subtle, but it’s important to give students opportunities to engage in all three. Learning in nature brings all the benefits of learning outside, but it can be as simple as reading a book outdoors. Learning about nature usually means working toward science learning objectives, such as understanding characteristics of natural things or different habitats. Learning with nature can be a little trickier. It may start with an experience with nature that sparks a student’s interest and motivates them to build on that learning. Maybe they find an animal footprint outside that inspires them to find a book to look up what kind of animal left it, or perhaps they’ll see a whirligig seed pod from a maple tree and start investigating other plants to see how they distribute seeds. Providing for all three types of nature activities requires some thought and intentional planning, but it is a wonderful way to make sure students engage with, and learn from and about, nature.

                You never know if the next time you take your young students outside will be the moment one of them starts down the path to becoming a botanist or an environmentalist who will work to make our planet a safe and healthy place–all because they were fascinated by cottonwood fluff floating through the air. What you can know for sure is that when they go outside, they’ll have the opportunity to practice a wide array of learning skills while reaping the many benefits outdoor learning provides. The outdoors is teeming with teachable moments, so start planning and get out there!

                About the Author:

                Jennifer Fernández is the national early childhood subject matter expert at School Specialty. She has a B.A. in elementary education and Spanish and an M.A. in bilingual education. She taught in a variety of classroom settings, primarily early childhood, for 23 years and was a professional learning specialist for the city of San Antonio’s Pre-K 4 SA program for seven years. Jennifer provides professional development throughout the U.S. and has presented at regional, state, and national early childhood conferences. She can be reached at

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