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Why is outdoor exploration essential to early education?

The Danes say that there is no bad weather, only bad clothing and this has been adopted around the world as a kind of rallying cry for educators expounding the value of outdoor play and exploration. In recognition that learning occurs outdoors as well as indoors, Early childhood educators are keen that children are given regular opportunities to play, explore and learn outdoors.

Health benefits of outdoor play

Think about it for a second, human beings as creatures are designed to spend most of their time outdoors; in hunter-gatherer societies people would have spent most, if not all, their time outdoors, exposed to the elements. Whilst society has changed considerably our physical makeup has not and this blueprint of our ancestors still runs through our veins, literally!

Human bodies need exposure to natural light in order to produce vitamin D which helps keeps bones healthy. This is a particularly important vitamin in the early years of life when bones have not fully ossified. As well as healthy bones, time outdoors helps children to build muscle strength through different kinds of play and improve their fitness and cardiovascular health. With obesity posing an increasing threat to healthcare systems tackling this at the earliest opportunity is imperative.

In a world of antibacterial cleaners and hand soaps, research is beginning to suggest that children’s immune systems are being weakened. Without regular exposure to dirt and germs, which they get when they play outside, children are more likely to experience allergic or asthmatic responses to normal environmental triggers.

As well as being good for physical health, playing and exploring outdoors is good for human’s mental health too; being outside causes the human body to produce more serotonin, the ‘feel-good’ hormone that prevents depression and makes us feel happy. For children in the Early Years this lays an important foundation for learning as a calm, happy mind is a mind ready to learn.

Physical play

Outdoor play and exploration lends itself more naturally to physical play without the confines of furniture and walls found indoors. This allows children to develop physical skills like learning to walk, run, ride a trike or a bike, climb a tree, use a slide or a swing set, and all of the underlying skills that go into this. Gross motor skills are the large-scale movements we make, and gaining mastery over these movements is a pre-requisite for other physical skills like writing. Balance, co-ordination and spatial awareness are also important skills gained through this kind of outdoor physical play.

It’s not just learning to do these specific physical things that is of benefit to children outdoors. For example, in learning to use a climbing frame a child learns to assess risk, plan a route, problem solve, develops spatial awareness, and experiences gravity and self-limitation.

Yet there’s even more to outdoor play than this! When young children move and play neural connections are made in their brains which help them to process, sort and ‘file away’ their thoughts and experiences, children literally need to move in order to learn and to make sense of life.

Basis for other learning

As well as physical development, outdoor exploration and play provides a great foundation for other kinds of learning. For example, as children gain control over gross motor movements they are more readily able to develop fine motor skills. There is a strong basis for mathematics in the outdoors as children gain understanding of shape, space and measure through their experiences of nature. This experience of nature is a key benefit of outdoor exploration in and of itself, helping children to build closer connections to nature, which may in turn lead to environmentalism and care for the planet.

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