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Why should outdoor spaces be part of every early learning program?

Early childhood education occurs at a time when human growth is at its fastest. The circumstances and experiences children are exposed to during these formative years have a profound effect on their development on all levels—physical, cognitive, social, and emotional. Although most early learning programs understand the value of creating stimulating classroom environments, outside space is as important for a child’s growth. Any early learning program should incorporate time spent in nature into the daily plan, regardless of whether it is housed in a center, school, or home. Here are four key reasons why outdoor spaces should be a fundamental component of early childhood education:

Provides Experiential, Hands-On Learning:

Young minds learn best through interactive, hands-on experiences rather than just listening or watching. The diverse, natural settings found in outdoor spaces provide unlimited opportunities for experiential learning across all developmental domains. Digging in sand and mud promotes sensory exploration, physical skills, and science concepts. Observing insects and animals allows lessons in biology and nature. Climbing on play structures develops gross motor skills and spatial awareness. Exploring trails or wooded areas builds problem solving as children navigate uneven terrain. Gardens offer math and science concepts through planting seeds, predicting growth, and harvesting vegetables. Dramatic play areas spark social interaction, language use, role-playing. In short, the outdoors provides the ultimate learning laboratory for young children to understand themselves and the world holistically.

Supports Social and Emotional Growth:

Outdoor environments encourage greater social interaction and communication among children. With more space to use their bodies, collaborate, and engage in dramatic play, being outside often brings increased speaking, negotiation, sharing, and relationship skills. Spending time surrounded by nature has also been shown to reduce stress and improve mood in children. Outdoor spaces allow kids to take reasonable risks, manage fears, and gain confidence in their abilities. Interacting with nature fosters creativity and imagination. Additionally, children feel a sense of freedom, autonomy, and control over their choices during outdoor play, critical factors for emotional growth. In these ways, outdoor spaces greatly contribute to social and emotional development.

Introduces Concept of Environmental Stewardship:

Early exposure to nature can influence a person’s thoughts and actions toward the environment for the rest of their life. Children may get up close and personal with the beauty of nature in outdoor settings. They can see animals, birds, and insects in their natural habitats, feel the warmth of the sun, and watch trees move in the breeze. Outdoor exploration fosters environmental consciousness and reverence for the natural world. Students and instructors can take care of gardens, plants, and animals in outdoor classrooms. By watering plants, raking leaves, recycling items, and cleaning up rubbish, children develop a feeling of responsibility. Fostering this early childhood connection with and concern for the natural world establishes the foundation for environmental stewardship moving forward.

Promotes Physical Development and Health:

In addition to the benefits already outlined, spending time outdoors has been linked to improved eyesight in children. The distance viewing that occurs naturally when children play in outdoor spaces exercises their eye muscles leading to reduced rates of nearsightedness. Sunlight also encourages healthy circadian rhythms and sleep cycles in young children.

Provides Experiential, Hands-On Learning:

Outdoor spaces make excellent venues for instruction across academic subjects beyond science. Early math concepts like patterns, shapes, counting, and spatial relationships can be taught using natural objects like leaves, rocks, and sticks. Bark rubbings or leaf tracings allow practice with measurement and symmetry. Clouds formations and shadows from the sun facilitate lessons in observing and predicting change over time. The outdoors provides symbols and props for language instruction, vocabulary building, and storytelling inspiration. Reading and alphabet skills could incorporate scavenger hunts for objects starting with certain letters. Even pretend play structures can build narrative, character, and event sequencing abilities. The outside environment is a natural launchpad for learning objectives in any subject.

Supports Social and Emotional Growth:

Allowing children to play freely outdoors encourages independence, self-regulation, and conflict resolution abilities. With more space and less direct adult intervention, children must learn to initiate play scenarios, cooperate across differences, and solve interpersonal problems on their own. Developing these skills early promotes long-term social competence and self-directed behaviour. Additionally, outdoors spaces give children room to be active participants rather than passive observers which satisfies their need to feel competent and fosters intrinsic motivation to explore their world. Satisfying natural curiosity and interests through outdoor play promotes positive emotional associations with learning.

Introduces Concept of Environmental Stewardship:

The outdoor classroom provides a meeting place for intergenerational learning where grandparents or other adult volunteers can connect with children by sharing gardening skills, nature knowledge, or sustainability practices. These interactions enrich social bonds in the community while passing on ecological values. Teachers could collaborate with parents to model conservation initiatives like recycling programs, composting, rain collection systems, or solar energy use to inspire children by example. Seeing important adults in their lives care for the planet helps cement mindsets of environmental stewardship moving forward. Early learners can also be empowered to educate others about preservation by creating informational nature posters, writing Earth Day songs, or presenting assembly skits on recycling.

Flexibility to Accommodate All Settings and Populations:

The benefits of outdoor learning can be reaped by any early childhood program whether based in a stand-alone preschool, child care center, family child care home, private school, or public school. Outdoor space requirements may range from a small playground or patio area to parking lot container gardens all the way to expansive purpose-built natural playscapes. Teachers must utilize their environs to maximum advantage. Programs in urban areas may rely more on regular field trip outings to public parks, gardens, or natural history sites. Home-based providers can incorporate front yard play, neighborhood walking exploration, or planting in a community garden plot. Careful scheduling and storage solutions help ensure equitable access to outdoor equipment and materials across mixed-age groups. Portable lesson supplies facilitate academic instruction in any outdoor area. Individual accommodations enable children with special needs to participate fully in outdoor learning. Ultimately with creative vision, fresh air and nature can enhance every child’s development.

The advantages of incorporating outdoor time into early education are clear. While traditional classrooms have their place in early learning, the ultimate classroom resides right outside the door. Every preschool and early learning program, whether home, center, or school-based, should prioritize and schedule time for outdoor learning and play every day. Research confirms children reap tremendous benefits across all developmental domains from connecting with nature: physical, social, emotional, academic, and environmental. Outdoor spaces stimulate the senses, nurture health, encourage hands-on discovery, inspire creative thinking, promote collaboration, reduce stress, and foster an abiding respect for the natural environment. In fact, time outside should not be viewed as a break from learning but an absolutely essential component for quality early childhood education. The ideal early learning environment balances indoor and outdoor experiences to nurture the whole child.

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