Why Outdoor Education Matters In Early Childhood

For many people, ‘outdoor education’ conjures up images of school camping trips, petting zoos and excursions into the countryside.

But the reality is that outdoor education doesn’t only involve structured activities outside.  It starts as soon as a child is born when they are gently exposed to the outdoors and it continues throughout life as people experience the magic of Mother Nature and all the lessons she can teach us.

This article discusses why outdoor education is so important in early childhood and how it provides a vital platform for young children to discover the world, develop vital skills and learn about themselves.

What is outdoor education?

The following explanation from Outdoor Education Australia provides a good summary of what outdoor education involves and why it’s so valuable:

‘Outdoor education provides opportunities to develop positive relationships with the environment, others and ourselves through interaction with the natural world. These relationships are essential for the wellbeing and sustainability of individuals, society and our environment.’

‘Fresh air’ experiences and interactions enrich and extend a child’s growth and development in many different areas including their physical, cognitive, social and emotional wellbeing.

Young children are naturally curious and creative and they absorb information like sponges.  When they’re playing outside - be it messing about with sand and water, crunching through fallen autumn leaves, observing birds, finding shapes in the clouds, standing in the rain, pulling flower petals apart, climbing a tree or feeding an animal - they’re developing important skills and learning about the world, about others and how they fit into the world.

Why outdoor education matters in early childhood

The early years are widely acknowledged as the most important for learning. 

It’s the time when a young brain develops the fastest and when the foundations for the future are laid.  Positive experiences that a child has during this time have a major influence on the outcome of their lives in terms of their mental and physical health, their cognitive, social and communication skills and their ability to be meaningful contributors to society.

Now this may all seem like a far cry from a simple walk in the woods or watching a spider weave a web, but the fact is that when children connect with nature and get active outdoors, they’re putting building blocks in place for a successful future and a lifelong love of learning.

The key benefits of outdoor education in early childhood

Experts agree that spending time outdoors can have a positive impact on a child’s mental and physical health - and it’s especially important in this increasingly digitised ‘screen age’ to encourage and promote outdoor activities from early on.

Some of the key benefits of outdoor education in early childhood are:

  • Encourages essential physical skills

Running, jumping, climbing, skipping, chasing and balancing are important activities that help to keep children fit, strong and healthy and which also aid muscle development and bone density.  Spending time outdoors in their early years directly can also help with young children’s stability, dexterity, fine motor skills as well as lead to improved coordination.

  • Provides unique opportunities for imaginative play and creative thinking

The opportunities for exploration and discovery in the great outdoors are endless.  Children have different interests and in nature, there’s always something going on or something new to see which will engage, absorb and stimulate them.

  • The outdoor world supports classroom learning

Outdoor and indoor education complement one another and many of the concepts that young children learn about in the classroom are echoed in an outdoor setting.   Concepts like shapes, colours, numbers and temperature can all be reinforced when a young child explores the outdoor world - plus skills like problem-solving, teamwork, collaboration and consideration for others are also given a boost.

  • Helps reduce stress and anxiety

Being physical outdoors releases chemicals into the brain which can help children regulate their emotions.  This can help to calm them down, boost their self-esteem and help them face challenges more readily.

  • Supports the development of emotional and social skills

When young children play outside in less confined spaces, they have the opportunity to let their imaginations run wild and explore ways of interacting with others and building relationships.  This can assist with the development of a range of emotional and social skills like empathy, conflict resolution, sharing, taking turns, listening to others, solving problems etc. 

Outdoor play also introduces young children to new situations.  This encourages them to try new things, test their abilities and learn new skills which in turn helps them become more resilient, more confident, more self-aware and more independent.

  • Tops up their vitamin D levels

Sunlight is one of the best natural sources of vitamin D which is crucial for the healthy development of bones, muscles and teeth as well as for strengthening the body’s immune system.  Vitamin D also increases the body’s production of serotonin which can lead to improved memory and concentration - so it makes sense for young children to spend time outdoors (but always remember the sunscreen!).

  • Helps children let off steam

Allowing children playtime outside helps them burn energy and let off steam which can improve their ability to concentrate.

  • Facilitates sensory play

Crunching a dried leaf, squishing mud, snapping a twig, smelling a flower, feeling rough bark and tasting a rain drop are all ways that young children can use their senses to discover sensory information in the outdoors.

  • Awareness of the environment

Outdoor play and fun experiences outside help young children develop an awareness for the natural environment.  This deeper connection hopefully sets the path for a greater appreciation of the natural world,  the importance of sustainability and the need to protect the planet’s future.

Of course, outdoor play should be just a part of the overall play environment. You can find out more in our article "Why Natural Play Environments Are So Crucial For Children"

A final word on why outdoor education matters in early childhood

This article has touched on some of the benefits of outdoor education in early childhood, but there’s so much more to it.  It’s essential for healthy growth and development, and even when a child looks like they are simply ‘messing about having fun outside’, they’re constantly learning about themselves, about the world and about others. We’d love an opportunity to show you how outdoor education is incorporated into the daily curriculum at Evoke Early Learning and we invite you to book a tour of our childcare centres in Clayton or Albert Park.  Hope to see you soon!

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