Outdoor learning puts nature at the centre of children’s learning — and its proponents believe it’s a strong way to help build independence, strength and curiosity in the Early Years.
Practising outdoor learning requires proper planning, the right gear for the weather, and close coordination with families at home.
Especially with the coronavirus, outdoor learning offers an approach to Early Years learning that meets social distancing precautions.
Anne Therkelsen, director of Børnehuset Evigglad, discusses how her two child care settings in southern Denmark approach outdoor learning.
If you’re like most people, a weather forecast of 10°C and heavy rain means you’re keeping the children inside for the day.
But Anne Therkelsen isn’t most people.
Anne is the director of Børnehuset Evigglad, a child care provider in southern Denmark with a special focus on outdoor learning. Her two settings support around 100 children and 35 staff — and from 8:30 AM each morning, everybody’s outside for just about the whole day.
Compared to your more conventional child care setting, the outdoor learning approach at Børnehuset Evigglad might seem a bit far out. There’s quite a bit more weather-watching, and an afternoon hunt for exciting bugs might be a lesson in itself. But Anne believes that outdoor learning teaches children fundamental skills in self-reliance, and a deeper respect for nature and one another.
I recently called up Anne to hear about her own approach to outdoor learning in the Early Years, and how other child care settings can apply these principles to their daily practice.
What do children get from outdoor learning?
Anne talks about the outdoors almost like it’s another classroom — but one that’s a lot bigger, and more accommodating.
“We’ve got fewer conflicts. The children that need peace and quiet can find that in nature, and the ones that need to let off steam have room to run around. We don’t always have space for that inside, so those conflicting energies run into each other. Out in nature, there’s space for everybody,” she says.
When children play outside, Anne says, they learn to trust themselves. Outdoor learning lets children run, climb, and explore in a way they don’t always get the chance to do in their everyday lives. This active outdoor play builds a strong sense of independence, physical strength and a sensitivity to their surroundings.
Anne says she’s had some children who, before coming to Børnehuset Evigglad, hadn’t so much as gone out grocery shopping with their parents. Learning to run about in nature by themselves, or to walk through town as a group, was a challenge for both the children and staff at Børnehuset Evigglad. But Anne believes it’s necessary work to help children learn to be inquisitive and independent.
Outdoor learning and the coronavirus
As child care settings navigate new ways of doing things under the coronavirus, outdoor learning can offer a solution to some of the more challenging new restrictions. Plus, Anne says, it’s a welcome change of pace for the children.
“Especially after the coronavirus, most children are excited to be outside as much as possible. They’ve been stuck at home or in a car for the past few months, so the freedom to go and explore is huge for them. They really don’t need much convincing to be outside all day,” she says.
Here are some key ways that outdoor learning can help during these times:
Meeting adjusted capacity rules — In most cases, local coronavirus precautions mean you have to follow social distancing when indoors, or adjusted ratios of children to staff. Getting outside makes it easier to give everyone the space they need, and avoids the risk of crowding indoors.
Lowering risk of infection — As of the time of this writing, current research connects indoor spaces with a higher risk of transmitting the coronavirus. Bringing the class outside puts both children and staff in a lower-risk environment throughout the day.
Less use of facilities and supplies — One of the biggest expenses and challenges for child care right now is buying enough cleaning supplies to keep up with the heightened sanitation requirements. Being outside for a day or a half day could mean saving money on cleaning supplies and sanitization work.
Coordinating with parents
A big part of outdoor learning is making sure everyone has the right clothes for the weather.
Come rain or shine, Anne makes sure that the children get outside every day. As she likes to say, there’s no such thing as bad weather — just the wrong clothing.
Every child at Børnehuset Evigglad gets some wardrobe space and a box for their belongings. Depending on the season, children need a hat, gloves, rain jacket, coat, sneakers, boots and a dry change of clothes at the ready. The staff checks children’s gear regularly, to make sure everything fits and is in good condition.
“In Denmark, we’re used to going outside to play, regardless of the wind or weather. It’s all a question of the clothes you bring for the season and surroundings,” she says. “Right now, it’s quite warm, so we focus on finding spots of shade to play in, and we help the children remember to drink water and apply sunscreen. This way, they learn to handle themselves in different settings and weather conditions.”
Anne and her team use Famly to coordinate with parents, letting them know about clothing needs for the weather, and reminding them to periodically check the fit of the children’s gear. To manage outdoor learning, she says, having this clear line of communication to coordinate with families is essential.
Learning to adapt to every day
When your classroom doesn’t have a roof, you’ve got to learn to be flexible.
Anne gives her team a lot of flexibility from day to day — they’ll work with what the weather allows, and with what the children are up for.
“We want to make children happy and the parents happy. So you’ve got to adjust your activities and goals for the day so it fits all the children, and so everyone can take part,” she says.
In Denmark, coronavirus precautions require one teacher to work with a fixed group of four to six children. Anne says her staff has enjoyed this a lot. hey get to work closely with this small group, and she gives them the leeway to plan activities and field trips just for those children. If the children are up for it, they’ll hop on bicycles and go for a little spin — or, they might sit in the grass and draw pictures of bugs.
Like other child care settings in Denmark, Børnehuset Evigglad receives their long-term curriculum plan from the Danish government. This sets up learning goals, and it’s how Anne and her team shape the larger themes of their lessons, the songs they’ll sing with the children, or the activities they’ll focus on that month. Her team often finds ways to connect these learning themes to nature, like collecting wildflowers for Easter bouquets.
But while this curriculum plan provides a long-term structure, each day’s activities often take shape based on the weather, and what the children are feeling.
“Sometimes when we show up in the morning, we’ll make our lessons for the day based on what the children are in the mood for. We’re focused more on the big picture — on the learning process over weeks or months, rather than the details of each and every day.”
When is it time to go inside?
While Børnehuset Evigglad tries to bring learning outside as much as possible, it’s not a concrete rule.
Here are some situations when the class heads back inside:
When the weather’s just too harsh — Every child has got a wardrobe of rain gear and warm clothes, but sometimes that still isn’t enough. If everybody’s rain gear gets soaked through, or it’s too cold even to be comfortable in one’s hat and mittens, the team brings everyone inside. On days like this, they’ll try to stay out for as long as is comfortable
For snacks and meals — The kitchen at Børnehuset Evigglad often prepares packed snacks and lunches to eat outside, but depending on the day and weather, the class might head in to rest and eat before heading back out.
If the children just aren’t feeling it — The staff at Børnehuset Evigglad have a lot of room to plan the day’s activities based on how the children are feeling. If a lot of children are really in a strong indoor mood, they’ll find some quiet indoor activities for the day. Sometimes, the team will split the children into an inside and outside group.
How you can bring your lessons outside
You don’t need to get out in the countryside to do outdoor learning.
As Anne emphasizes, outdoor learning hinges on a creative, resourceful attitude toward our surroundings. Whether you’re in the suburbs or the middle of the city, you can find nature nearby — a local garden, playground or neighborhood park are great options. While both of Børnehuset Evigglad’s settings are in smaller towns, neither are truly out in the countryside — so she and her team still find ways to get out to nature, or find it in their nearby surroundings.
While you look for outdoor space, keep in mind that our grown-up brains interpret spaces a little differently than children. To a four-year-old, that park around the corner feels three times bigger, and full of exciting details we might not see.
Another important aspect of outdoor learning is rethinking our understanding of indoor activities, Anne says. If you’re interested in outdoor learning, take a moment to think about how your child care setting’s day is planned — and if everything really needs to be indoors.
“It’s also a question of learning to look for the ways we can bring our learning outdoors. What do we do indoors because we need to, and what do we do indoors just because we’re used to it that way?” she asks. “Instead of taking nature into the classroom, we should take the classroom out to nature. Why grow a plant in the classroom when we could go out and explore the plants growing in nature?”
Building a relationship with nature
A big part of outdoor learning is letting nature do the teaching.
Instead of learning about nature in classrooms, nature becomes an inherent part of children’s play. When the outdoors is both playground and classroom, natural science becomes more immediate, and more relevant.
For the team at Børnehuset Evigglad, there are just more lessons to be learned out in nature. Children get an organic exposure to the world around them, and as they learn to exist and react to their environment, every day is full of little science lessons.
“We teach the children to take care of nature as part of their education. We’re just borrowing this space, so we need to act as guests,” she says. “It’s a part of self-development, really — when we learn to respect and understand nature, we learn to respect and understand each other, too.”
Official Danish Government Reopening Advice
Guidance from the Danish Health Ministry, translated in full to English.
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