Outdoor play opportunities and early learning

Being outside is often the ideal environment for children to learn. An environment where they can explore different textures, natural sounds, their own physical movements, and experience fundamental things like going down a slope or balancing on a wall. The wide-ranging Every Child a Talker (ECaT) study had reported that children were also a lot more communicative and vocal in an outdoor environment. Outdoor play has a positive impact on children’s well-being, as it gives them the freedom to explore and express themselves through a wider range of movements and sounds. Here at Alphablocks Nursery School we are fully aware of the importance of outdoor play and, in this post, we explain how we make the most out of the opportunities it provides.

The Early Years Foundation Stage Framework underlines the importance of outdoor play in providing opportunities for young children to be active and interactive, as well as to develop their movement, control and co-ordination. Outdoor learning helps children develop space awareness and it supports overall physical development, including posture, balance, and muscle development. Even though there is no doubt whatsoever as to these benefits (and many more!) that outdoor play provides, young children don’t spend enough time in outdoor environments, and this sets the scene for their future attitudes in the first classes of primary school.

But what is it that makes the outdoors such an ideal learning environment? For young children, this is because a natural environment is inherently interesting for them, and attractive in a fundamental way, due to its multisensory aspects, where children can use all of their senses and many different skills at once.  It allows them to take risks and observe new things every day like a new sound or the changes in the seasons. At the most basic level, it helps children learn without them even realizing it.

All children learn through active learning, that is, by doing things. The outdoor environment allows them to take risks and enjoy autonomy and the freedom to explore and  offers them challenges like going down a steep hill or climbing on a tree. An outdoor learning environment can be tailored in such a way that it becomes an open-ended resource that allows children to experiment with natural objects like leaves, water, sticks, which do not have a fixed, or specific, use in their own right (hence opening up opportunities to be creative and make up various uses!). In children’s minds and hands these materials can become anything their imagination allows them to be, as for example magic wands, potions, or machines and devices. An outdoor experience encourages children to reflect after a trip and draw links with things they know or are thinking about in the particular moment. There are numerous opportunities for counting and spotting numbers in parks and forests, buses, trains, or counting birds, planes, conkers. One of the mothers in our School recently told me that, after playing a spotting game during her nursery session, on the way back home, her daughter said to her, ‘let’s play spot the number, mummy, and see who can spot more numbers.’ The two of them looked at cars’ number plates, watched out for signs with times and dates on them, and counted their steps up the stairs when they arrived home.

At Alphablocks Nursery School & Pre-Prep we focus on the importance of outdoor learning as much as much as we focus on our indoor environment. Our children have exclusive access to a sensory garden, which we are always working on with new projects, like designing how it could look like and planting flowers and herbs. They get the opportunity to practice skills like pouring, planting and digging and sort natural objects or discuss their properties. The participation of all the children, in groups defined by a shared sense of purpose, helps them learn and develop various skills without them even realizing they are involved in learning as such – a core principle of the Reggio Emilia approach in early education, which is part of our unique, hybrid approach.

We pay visits to Trent Park in Enfield, and its magnificent animal rescue centre, where the children are provided with opportunities for a real sense of discovery and exploration. We learn about the natural world and physical phenomena and how to work as a team to make a den. We also visit the landscaped gardens of West Lodge Park Hotel, and take trips further afield as well.

In our School, we use the outdoor environment not only to provide children with the opportunity to be physically active but also to set the scene for active learning, covering the different areas of our curriculum, and specifically the area of Natural Maths (starting from simple exercises like how to measure the length of a branch or sort out the acorns from the conkers) as well as other key natural processes and mechanisms, such as floating and sinking. We use all these opportunities to promote co-operation between team members, as well as independence and creativity on one’s own.

Alphablocks Nursery School & Pre-Prep is a boutique nursery in the heart of Hadley Wood village, between Enfield and Barnet, serving the local communities of Cockfosters, High Barnet, Southgate, Potters Bar and surrounding areas. We focus on children’s individual strengths and tailor their learning to make them “school-ready” in a way that promotes their overall development and a lifelong love of learning. You can find more about us through the Frequently Asked Questions page, and we encourage you to visit us with your child.