The activity habits that we develop in early childhood matter. What children learn about healthy eating, physical exercise, our relationship with the outdoors – they all form the basis for a child’s whole lifestyle, in the short- and long-term.
But is that all that outdoor play and learning is about in the Early Years? Not exactly. As well as providing the perfect backdrop for physical activity, spending time outdoors has been shown to positively affect your mood, lower stress, blood pressure and heart rates.
We’ve known about many of these crucial benefits to outdoor learning in the EYFS for some time now. But there’s one slightly new reason why it might be time to brush up how you’re approaching the EYFS outdoors…
Why are we focusing on outdoor learning now?
Covid-19 has led to more than one drastic change to the way we do things in the Early Years. A pivot to more outdoor learning may just be one of the most positive.
But that’s not all. Department for Education (DfE) guidance suggests that we risk-assess activities and resources and ‘keep windows open as far as possible to ensure ventilation and…use outdoor areas as much as possible”
All in, it’s time we start planning to be enabling a significant deal more of the EYFS outdoors.
Planning more fresh air fun
Of course, there are many things to take into consideration when planning for outdoor learning, including the fickle UK weather. Most importantly though, we need to consider how we provide opportunities and teaching possibilities to cover all seven areas of learning and development outdoors, as well as opportunities for children to build those all-important Characteristics of Effective Learning skills for life too.
These are present as children actively learn through applying their own ideas and first-hand experiences of the world, show curiosity, play and explore, as well as take chances to create and think critically about the outdoor area (and the world) they’re exploring.
With that in mind, here are 38 ideas, broken up into the different EYFS areas, to help you plan for bring the EYFS outdoors.
1. The Early Years outdoors: Personal, social, and emotional development ideas
Try low-level experiences for babies and young children, like using old tyres as a sturdy base for investigations – they could be a holder for a washing-up bowl for water play or a planter for herbs to investigate with their key person.
Wind chimes and windsocks, old CDs, and other objects suspended from a tree branch make interesting things for babies and young children to watch and adults to key into cues.
Parachute games can help form good relationships as children play with others.
Construction with crates, loose parts, planks, large blocks, and other natural materials are great for physical development and problem-solving.
The outdoors is also a great opportunity to build relationships in key person groups too.
2. Outdoor Early Learning: Communication and language ideas
Provide small reading nooks for children to explore books independently or for storytimes in small groups.
Children love songs and rhymes and they work just as well inside as outside – try them out in your new environment.
Make print available outdoors – laminated words reflecting children’s home languages or perhaps a ‘recipe sheet’ or ‘menu’ for your mud kitchen!
Listen to the sounds – birds, bees, aeroplanes, cars, and emergency service sirens- and talk about what is making them. Conversations about the weather are a fantastic opportunity to extend language, talking about the wind ‘blowing’, ‘swishing’ and so on.
Make puppets and use them, thinking about how you will provide role-play outside like a garden centre or car wash, for example.
Sometimes providing a narrative can help support learning in nature, talking about what children are doing “jumping up and down” or “splish splash” (as they jump in puddles).
3. Outdoor play in the Early Years: Physical development ideas
Consider how babies can safely explore outdoors. For example, you could use a large sheet to facilitate tummy time, and chances to learn to crawl, creep and walk. Don't forget your risk-assessments!
Make instruments or have ‘Wake up shake up’ sessions to further explore movement, giving children free rein to move and dance. Dance with ribbons and scarves to encourage gross motor skills, crossing the midline and bi-lateral movements.
Provide natural resources for the children to help build an assault course outside.
Sweeping brushes and other tools can help develop more physical skills. Large-scale mark-making can be done with chalks or water and large brushes on the floor or a large piece of paper.
Consider nooks and shaded areas for play and rest too.
4. The EYFS Outdoors: Literacy ideas
Share your favourite books and stories in a new setting.
Watch the clouds, talking about the various shapes you can see (like a dragon or The Gruffalo). Add to the children’s word bank by talking through the different types of clouds and their shapes.
Make your own stories – try a ‘magic carpet’ where each child adds something to the story and you recap as you go. For example, they can choose characters, where they are going, what adventures they will have and so on. This can be done with a large piece of paper too so that the children can draw, practise their emergent writing and you can scribe to capture their thoughts.
Try sound or sensory walks as you explore your outside space.
First-hand experiences of the weather, seasons and world are in abundance outdoors. Factual books might extend this too!
Children could write for a purpose, taking orders from customers in their café, or you could display open and closed signs to promote print in the outdoors environment.
5. Outdoor learning and play: Amazing mathematics ideas
Try out the same songs and rhymes that cover important mathematical ideas from indoors.
Provide items in a range of sizes, weights and textures. Talk about the size of things such as a “big book” or “small book”. You can try providing treasure basket and heuristic play outdoors on a dry day too. Great for fine-motor skills too!
Collect natural treasures to count (pine cones, leaves, shells, and rocks), sort into sizes, even or uneven groups, divide to share them with a friend, categorise, sequence – the list is endless!
Large dice can be rolled to explore numbers, add spots from two dice, decide which is the largest or smallest number (or perhaps they are “the same”?)
Explore volume and capacity – try making a weighing scale using a coat hanger and small buckets – and then provide objects and resources to weigh so children can hypothesise how many lighter objects it will take to weigh the same as a heavier object? Explore how many small cups of water might it take to fill a bucket or other experiments with volumes.
Use large 2D shapes on the floor, and let children interact with them – can children jump from a triangle to the square, for example?
6. EYFS outdoor activities: great ideas for understanding the world
Laminate photos of children and their families, perhaps babies and toddlers can select photos of their own family from a small collection to have in the outdoor space.
It might be possible for small groups to go for walks in the local community, perhaps to fruit pick or learn more about the local shops, places of worship, road signs and other environmental print. You can take photos of the different types of print you see to make a display or book too!
Explore the seasons by planting seeds, growing food in planters or grow bags, and talk children through life cycles and other important natural processes.
Provide windmills and bubbles and see how they interact with the changing world outside.
Bug hunts or treasure hunts are a great idea – How many natural objects can they find to fit into a small box? Can they find something starting with ‘sssss’?
Discuss your shadow – Why does your shadow look small sometimes and longer at others? Is your shadow in front or behind you? Draw around your shadow at different times of the day and see if the children can track the time.
7. EYFS Outdoor learning and play: Creative ideas for Expressive Arts and design
Create story boxes and story sacks to spark creativity.
Create a stage (this could be a chalked or taped off area or made from decking or crates) for children to recreate stories, make up plays or puppet and dance shows.
Provide an arts area for children to explore various media – the outdoors brings a hue of natural colours for extra inspiration.
Provide clipboards and pencils to inspire children to write and draw plans (Maybe they want to use them in the construction area or you might be planning to create a Bugingham Place or Nectar Café)?
The big ideas
Official Danish Government Reopening Advice
Guidance from the Danish Health Ministry, translated in full to English.
Please note: here at Famly we love sharing creative activities for you to try with the children at your setting, but you know them best. Take the time to consider adaptions you might need to make so these activities are accessible and developmentally appropriate for the children you work with. Just as you ordinarily would, conduct risk assessments for your children and your setting before undertaking new activities, and ensure you and your staff are following your own health and safety guidelines.