Theory and practice

You don’t need a forest to try outdoor learning in early education

An interview with Nilda Cosco of the Natural Learning Initiative
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February 22, 2022
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We humans have existed on this planet, with our fully-evolved human brains, for about 50,000 years. 

But for roughly 49,990 of those years, the majority of us homo sapiens have lived in rural environments, not cities. That urban-rural balance only shifted in 2007. 

So despite our big-city living, our brains are still fundamentally wired to exist out in nature.

And if you ask Nilda Cosco, co-founder of the Natural Learning Initiative, she’ll tell you that this needs to form the basis of how we teach and nurture children.

“We need to remember that we have been in urban environments for just a few seconds, looking at the whole history of human development. So, our brain is absolutely connected to nature. It’s embedded in each of us,” she says.

The Natural Learning Initiative is a unit within North Carolina State University’s College of Design, which studies how we can design healthier, more enriching outdoor learning spaces for children. Founded in 2000, the NLI offers programs for educators to help understand how (and why) to design good outdoor learning spaces, and they work with local children’s programs to build and study these environments. You’ll also find free resources on their website, where they share their research into the developmental benefits of nature-based learning for young children.

I recently called up Nilda to learn about the ingredients that make an outstanding outdoor learning space, and how you can use these principles in your own early education setting.

You can watch highlight clips from our interview just below, or find the full conversation at the bottom of the page. But first, here are the five biggest takeaways.

The big ideas

Nilda Cosco, Natural Learning Initiative — 5 interview takeaways

  1. Outdoor learning spaces need to support all sorts of play and learning, not just physical activity. They should offer play opportunities for every season.
  2. Often, we think of playgrounds as recreational space, but not educational. The truth is, some of children’s best learning happens on the playground.
  3. Outdoor learning spaces can be cheap and simple to set up. If you’re looking to get more involved, the best starting point is a simple planting box for gardening.
  4. COVID-19 has brought a new wave of interest in outdoor learning, and Nilda expects this trend to outlast the pandemic itself.
  5. Now is an ideal time to dive into outdoor learning, as you can find more free resources, community support and research than ever before.

The key elements of a good outdoor learning space

The single best trait in an outdoor learning space, Nilda says, is diversity.

In one sense, this means offering children lots of choices about what to do. There’s got to be plenty of space to crawl, hop and tumble — but also some quiet, shady corners where you can chat with friends, or go snooping for the most beautiful fallen leaves.

A small garden is one of the best elements for creating a varied learning space, Nilda says. Not only because young children will find loads of different ways to play in a garden, but also in the way the garden responds to the season. If your outdoor learning space is only inviting during the spring and summer, it’s harder for children to imagine how they can get outside and play all year round.

“In some parts of the world, you might spend some months under the snow. You’ve got to be able to ask, well, what’s interesting about this? What can we do here?” Nilda says.

But if we’re going to understand what makes a good outdoor learning space, we ought to look at what’s the matter with our conventional playgrounds.

What’s wrong with the word ‘playground’?

Too often, the word ‘playground’ makes us think of a product: a colorful, prefabricated plastic play structure, assembled in a grassy yard or a bed of wood chips.

These structures aren’t harmful, per se. But they do limit our idea of what play can (or should) be. In the clip above, Nilda breaks down how these prefabricated playgrounds focus on physical activity, and don’t make enough room for social, creative and artistic play.

As Nilda explains later (just after the 38-minute mark), calling these environments ‘playgrounds’ can also cause people to take them less seriously, when we know that play is the very basis of learning. In North Carolina, she recalls, switching terminology from ‘playground’ to ‘learning space” prompted a big increase in state funding and support.

“After that, money started to flow for the outdoors, and for playgrounds. It was very interesting what happened,” she says. “To be honest, we would like to call it outdoor play. But sometimes play doesn’t go well with regulations, licensing and laws.”

What the NLI offers for educators like you

Whether you’re reading this in North Carolina or tuning in from overseas, the NLI has got resources to help you engage more deeply in outdoor learning with your own children.

Around the 15-minute mark, you can hear Nilda go in-depth on all the resources that the NLI offers. But here’s a brief overview of what you can find through the NLI:

  • Free resources and downloadable references - In need of a beginner’s guide to backyard gardening, outdoor activity ideas, or a quick guide to cheap (or free) ways to build an outdoor play space? You might want to look at the NLI’s free resource library.
  • Professional development courses - For educators looking to dive into outdoor learning, the NLI offers certification programs to help learn about how to design, install and use outdoor learning spaces on an everyday basis.
  • Research on the many benefits of outdoor learning - The research wing of the NLI conducts, collects and publishes studies to help illustrate why outdoor learning benefits children, grown-ups, and communities.
  • Design assistance in building learning spaces - If you’re making an outdoor learning space for your child care setting (or children’s museum, or garden), the NLI offers consultation, support and analysis to help make your learning space the best it can be.

Baby steps to better your own outdoor learning space

Suppose you’re feeling motivated to get your own outdoor learning space up and running, or to make your existing space even better.

What can you do tomorrow, next week, or next month to make that happen?

In the clip above, Nilda explains a few of the smallest things you can start with that make the biggest difference. You should check out the full clip to get the complete list, but here are three ideas:

  1. Set up a planter box. Using a metal or wood frame, some soil and a few seeds, you can make a low-budget yet highly engaging addition to your outdoor play area. Nilda says seasonal or edible plants are the most engaging to garden with children.
  2. Hang up some pots and pans for acoustic play. Hang a couple old pans on a post or a fence, and let children find some sticks to play their new instruments. It might be best to keep this noisy musical play a bit away from your classroom, though.
  3. Set up a stepping stone balance path. Simple paving stones or old logs can make for an engaging balance-based obstacle course for children. You could invite children to decorate the stones and logs themselves, or auction off naming and decoration as part of a fundraising auction.

How COVID-19 changed the conversation about outdoor learning

Since the pandemic, we’ve seen a surge in excitement about outdoor learning. Within these corona-tinted times, outdoor play is great for a number of reasons:

  • There’s much more room to social distance in the great outdoors.
  • Outside is the best place for fresh air, which is key in protecting yourself against the virus.
  • Some studies suggest that solar radiation and UV rays can help kill virus particles, lessening worries about surface-based contamination. 

And since early 2020, Nilda has seen a spike in interest (and commitment) to outdoor learning from early educators all over the world. Take a look a the clip above to hear about the biggest changes she’s noticed, and what she believes this could mean for the future of outdoor learning in early education.

Nilda’s advice to someone just getting started

If you’re looking at all this and you’ve not dabbled much in outdoor learning yourself, it might seem a bit daunting.

But the good news, Nilda says, is that you’re not alone.

You’re far from the first person to stand in your position, wondering how to dive into outdoor learning. And nowadays, there’s more momentum than ever — so it’s easy to get support, find additional resources and inspiration from other educators.

“Twenty years ago, we were pioneers, and it was difficult to get going. Now there is a movement, there is knowledge, and great examples to draw from,” Nilda says.

In the clip above, you can hear Nilda’s best advice to anyone who’s not sure how (or where) to start with outdoor learning.

The full Natural Learning Initiative Interview

Nilda Cosco on how (and why) we should do more outdoor learning in early education

Here’s the full interview with Nilda Cosco. Here, we’ll cover additional details, such as:

  • Why outdoor play ought to be the very foundation of children’s learning
  • The free resources NLI offers to educators like you
  • Common barriers to getting involved in outdoor learning, and how to get around them
  • What children request when you let them plan their own play spaces
  • How our idea of outdoor learning and play has changed over the years
  • Just what we miss when we’re using a traditional prefabricated playground
  • How local cultures and communities can shape the way children play and learn
  • Cheap and free ways to build up an outdoor learning space
  • NLI’s experience establishing outdoor learning spaces in low-income communities
  • What you can learn through the NLI’s certification courses
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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.