Outdoor Learning Spaces

How to make the most of the outdoors to support learning outcomes

More and more educators are considering alternative learning environments and the impact on the engagement and learning of children. As a result there has been more interest in the use of outdoor spaces as a learning ‘tool’.

Why consider outdoor learning?

  • It is a naturally stimulating environment that can improve focus and attention to enable children to better retain information:
    • the fresh air and breeze is alerting;
    • shoes off and contact with the earth is grounding;
    • natural light is so very good for eyes as opposed to overstimulating, and therefore fatiguing, screens;
  • Contact with nature decreases stress and anxiety, and calm kids are better able to learn;
  • Nature provides so many more opportunities for sensory input, balance, gross and fine motor skill development, and hands-on learning than can be created in an indoor environment;
    • notice the change in seasons together as the weeks pass;
    • enables messy and hands-on learning without stressing adults;
    • the more parts of the brain that are used during learning, the greater the likelihood of cementing that information.
  • Children receive the message that learning happens everywhere, not just in a classroom!

Anyone who has taken a group of children outdoors in order to learn knows that these benefits are real but it can also be tough. Whether you suddenly find yourself competing with the distraction of the PE class throwing frisbees closeby, a flock of cockatoos sitting in the trees screeching or the winds alerting breeze has turned into an annoying non-stop gale. The outdoors is unpredictable and can be full of distractions.

Here are my top five tips to make the most of outdoor learning spaces:

  1. Acknowledge the distraction, whatever it may be. Asking children to ignore it doesn’t work because they are wonderfully curious and inquisitive little people.
  2. Reframe your idea of distractions, instead consider them as opportunities for practising life skills.
    • If a child is yelling ‘hey you’ because someone they know has walked past, encourage them (through role modelling) to wave and say hello.
    • Ask the child what they are looking at, often all they need is a few minutes to process it.
  3. Let children choose where to sit. Children usually position themselves to get the sensory input their body needs at that time. This will help them to better concentrate instead of thinking about how to get comfortable. And yes for some, it may mean they are upside down.
  4. For high energy children – ask them to carry the books to wherever you are going. Heavy work can help to regulate energy levels.
  5. Add time for sensory breaks. Time is tight but if we consider the time spent managing behaviours, then these breaks are time well spent in helping children to calm and therefore to be ready to learn:
    • Allow children to lead breaks – if they want to walk along the rail/ logs/ rocks then consider the balance and heavy work that is happening;
    • If they are running, then let them run (if they fall over, they will graze their knee and learn to be more steady);
    • If they are spinning around as they walk, perhaps a few minutes on the swings or flying fox will give them the vestibular input they’ll need to then focus.

Outdoor classroom day is 7th November but why wait until then? Why not start enjoying the benefits of outdoor learning, and the opportunities that come with it, today, this week or this term?

Written by: Bron Lucey. Mother to 3 children who share her love of the finer things in life like mud, the outdoors and general mess. Occupational therapist in her spare time.

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