The chance to connect with the natural world; first hand experiences of life and growth; endless opportunities for creativity and imagination; improved fitness and physical development – the countless benefits of outdoor play have a real positive impact on children's lives.
There has been much research on the subject of the benefits of outdoor play. Helen Bilton, an Educational Advisor and author of 'Playing Outside' describes the three main benefits as she sees them:
Firstly, outside is a natural environment for children. There is a freedom associated with the space which cannot be replicated inside. If children feel at home in a particular space it seems natural to teach them in that area; education should not be a chore but an enjoyable worthwhile occupation. Children playing and learning in an outdoor environment appear more active, absorbed, motivated and purposeful, and develop a more positive attitude to learning.
Secondly, the environment where we work and play affects our emotions. Children will often be less inhibited outside, and more willing to join in with activities, talk and come out of their shells. In overcrowded spaces children's behaviour can change, some can become more aggressive, while others become more solitary (Bates 1986).
Thirdly, outdoors is the perfect place to learn through movement, which is one of the four vehicles through which children can learn, the others being play, talk and sensory experiences. All of these happen more naturally outside, but with so much space and so many opportunities to move in different ways, the setting supports learning through movement particularly well.
There are also clear health benefits associated with outdoor learning. Children need daily exercise, vigorous enough to get them out of breath with their hearts and lungs working hard. NHS guidelines say that children under 5 need three hours exercise a day and that it should be with a mixture of bone strengthening, muscle building and cardiovascular. At Into The Woods, we ensure that through activities such as running, climbing, digging and swinging from branches, these needs are more than met every day.
Exercise also improves children's emotional health, allowing for relaxation and calmness and a heightened sense of well being (Armstrong 1996). Exercise is clearly an essential component of children's physical and emotional development, and one of the significant benefits of choosing an outdoor nursery for your child.
And there are other health benefits from simply being outdoors. Research published recently by England’s chief medical officer Professor Dame Sally Davies found that there has been a rise in cases of rickets in children. This is from lack of exposure to sunlight leading to vitamin D deficiency — not something you will need to worry about, if your child comes with us Into The Woods!
The curriculum used by all schools and nurseries for children 0-5 years old is the Early Years Foundation Stage or the EYFS. It groups children's development and learning into seven areas:
The three prime areas are:
Personal, Social Emotional Development
Communication and Language
The four specific areas are:
Expressive Arts and Design
Understanding of the World
We have already looked at the ways in which outdoor play can enhance children’s personal, emotional and physical development. Let's look at some other areas.
Children learn through negotiating plans with their friends, maybe to build a shelter for a hedgehog or working out whose turn it is first on the rope swing. They learn to co-operate through group games and enjoy the company of others as they play and relax.
Children are motivated to talk by stimulating experiences and a day in the woods gives the children plenty to talk about. At Into The Woods we understand the value of these experiences. We create a relaxed, supportive environment in which the children feel safe and valued, and at every opportunity throughout the day we promote high-quality talk that develops the children's confidence and speaking and listening skills.
The woods are full of open-ended resources that stimulate children's imaginations. For example, a stone could be buried pirate treasure, a plate for a pixie, food for bear, a wall for a castle, a car for a bug or many other things. Whereas resources such as a plastic car, are usually only used by children as a car. Rather than taking a whole array of resources and toys with us, the focus at Into The Woods is on using what we find for imaginative, exploratory play and for creating and building.
Hands-on use of real objects is the cornerstone of developing mathematical understanding and as with all learning, engagement is the key. So the woods is the perfect place to develop those early maths skills, whether it be through counting conkers, pacing out distances, or finding shapes we recognise in the world around.
Just like any nursery, we sing songs, and listen to and tell stories every day – with the added bonus that much of the time we will be doing it under the trees. We ensure plenty of opportunities for the development of early literacy skills such as letter and word recognition. At an indoor nursery the children might start making letters by drawing them in sand. At Into The Woods we don't need a sand tray—we make letters and words from natural objects on the forest floor or find sticks to write them in the mud or earth.
Where do we begin with this area? Learning about the flora and fauna, life cycles, the weather, the seasons, growth, habitats, insulation, light and dark, sound, forces....the list is endless. We are in nature's classroom and make the most of it.
This part of the Early Years Foundation Stage (EYFS) curriculum describes children's attitudes to learning and 'how' they learn rather than 'what' they learn. If positive habits are formed in their early years, children will be able to apply these learning styles throughout their lives.
Finding out and Exploring: children use all their senses to understand the natural world and the changes
Being willing to have a go: children have lots of opportunities to risk take and risk manage
Playing with what they know: children have endless opportunities for role play and for testing out ideas
Being involved and concentrating: children are naturally more engaged in self-chosen activities. With time for them to extend their play and learning in their own direction, they will enjoy the benefits of staying with a task or activity for an extended period.
Enjoying what they set out to achieve: enjoying achieving what they set out to do. There is no right or wrong way to play with the open-ended resources
Keeping on trying: activities and being outdoors promotes resilience, falling over, getting muddy
Having their own ideas: children will develop their own games and play and be involved in planning their own activities
Making links: children notice patterns in the natural world from seasons to leaf shapes. They use their knowledge to make predictions and test their ideas
Choosing ways to do things: problem solving through real life experiences, e.g. how will we move this heavy log, how can we redirect the flow of this stream?
The benefits of outdoor play could fill a whole website by themselves. If you would like to know more, take a look at the following books and web articles.
Playing Outside (Helen Bilton)
Developing Muscles and Minds (Marjorie Ouvry)
The Great Outdoors — Developing Children's Learning (Margaret Edgington)
Last Child in the Woods (Richard Louv)