The concept of natural outdoor play and learning environment, and the benefits of outdoor play in early education was discussed in the article: “Nature and the Outdoor Learning Environment: The Forgotten Resource in Early Childhood Education” by Allen Cooper of the National Wildlife Federation (NWF.Org).
Early Childhood Education (ECE) programmes are designed in such a way, that they are expected to groom and foster three important domains of development and promote the health and wellbeing of children: Physical, Cognitive and Socio-emotional.
The 9 Powerful Benefits of Outdoor Play in Early Childhood Education
According to Cooper, all the domains pertaining to the growth and development, along with the health and well-being of the children, are enhanced, enriched and improved through outdoor play and learning.
He further adds that the presence of many diverse elements in nature are instrumental for learning to happen, and in the process, provide the following benefits:
1. Improves Eyesight
Setting up of natural outdoor play and learning environment helps in holistic development of health and well-being of children. For instance, spending more time outdoors reduces the rates of Myopia (short-sight), which can happen even among young children.
2. Improves Nutrition & Nutrition Absorption
One of the major challenges parents of young children have to deal with, is making their children have adequate green vegetables and fruits. This is where the outdoor learning environment can play a significant role by directly addressing the challenge.
For instance, when children see fruits and vegetables grown in their own backyard at home or their school garden, they get to see a seed transform into a fully grown fruit or vegetable – right in front of their eyes.
From a child’s point of view, the experience of harvesting their own food can be profound, and can therefore influence them to voluntarily have more of green vegetables and fruits on a regular basis. Also, since they spend a good amount of time outdoors, their metabolism also gets enhanced, which in turn helps in better absorption of nutrition.
Encouraging children to involve themselves and get a hands-on experience of growing their own food in their own home/school garden right from an early age, can a highly effective strategy to develop positive eating habits in them. The health benefits of outdoor play in early years therefore, can be manifold.
3. Reduces Restlessness and Aggressive Behaviour
When children spend time outdoors playing and learning in the presence of natural elements, it helps decrease symptoms of restlessness or aggressive behaviour in them, if any; which in turn enhances their concentration. It also reduces physiological stress, improves interest levels and increases their attention span.
4. Promotes Self-Confidence
Children who spend a lot of time playing out in the open are far more enthusiastic and ready for outdoor adventures. Their enthusiasm, coupled with the benefits of being in lush green spaces, helps enhance their concentration and self-discipline. As a result, they also become very self-confident.
5. Promotes Cognitive Development
Being outdoors and playing in the open environment gives children a unique experience of nature in all its glory, which has a direct impact in terms of stimulation of their five senses – especially visual. Together, their experiences promote cognitive development in the form of growth and development of a healthy brain.
6. Improves Academic Performance
Exposure to nature and outdoors through play on a daily basis enhances a child’s ability to focus and increased attention span, which in turn improves their academic performance.
7. Advances Physical Fitness & Gross Motor Development
Children who play outdoors regularly are far more lively and active than children who don’t. They are also more swift and better at their reflexes. Such children are therefore considerably fit than those who do not actively spend quality time outdoors.
Most of all, they also have a considerably higher level of motor fitness, balance and agility. Many studies also show that the quality and readiness of a preschool’s outdoor environment for play and activities determines the quality of overall growth, development and fitness of children.
8. Promotes Constructive, Imaginative and Collaborative Play
While outdoor play directly promotes physical competence and cognitive skills, one of the most important benefits of outdoor learning environment is the development of social skills. This is one of the key reasons why the importance of outdoor play for children’s social emotional development needs to be understood by parents, teachers and caregivers.
When children play and/or engage in activities in the outdoors with other children, it develops their social skills, language skills, patience (by waiting for their turn), motivation skills (by encouraging others) and collaborative skills, therefore making them grow as a well-rounded team player.
These are crucial life skills, which can have a considerable positive influence on their personality and outlook towards life in general. These skills in fact, when gained, can go on to have a positive impact across their entire life as an adult.
9. Builds an Understanding & Appreciation for Nature and Outdoors
Children who regularly play in the open environment are more likely to develop deep and positive perceptions about nature and the environment.
They can in fact grow up having an emotional connect with nature and its elements. This in turn builds in them a sense of respect and appreciation for natural ecosystems, food systems and the various environmental processes that happen in nature.
The 10 Standards to Adopt to Promote Natural Outdoor Play
Children can derive all the benefits of outdoor play in early childhood education as discussed above, provided the following standards are adopted to promote natural outdoor learning environment:
- Designating a separate space for outdoor play and learning
- Have at least two gross motor play features like climbing, looping, etc.
- Have at least two activity-learning settings like gardening, garage/loose parts areas
- Have select plants representing natural habitats and common flora and fauna, like grass, creepers, flowering plants, vegetable plants, trees, woods, logs, birds, bird houses, etc.
- Have as many natural topography features as possible like mounds, slopes, plains, pebbles, rocks, boulders, etc.
- Have water sources for minor irrigation and watering facilities
- Have a looped path for wheeled toys
- Allocate at least one 30-minute of outdoor session for every 3-hours of indoor session (one-sixth of sessions should be outdoors)
- Allow hand-plucking and eating of fruits and vegetables grown in the outdoor space
- Make children walk every day in the outdoor learning environment or in nearby public parks/gardens