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From skeptics to allies: Getting caregivers on board for outdoor learning

August 3, 2022

What makes parents support outdoor play in early education?

What makes parents support outdoor play in early education?
Parent hikes through the jungle to do outdoor learning with his child
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In a rush? Here's the quick run-down.

  • In this story, Linda McGurk looks at the biggest sticking points for getting parents' support for outdoor learning, and what you can do about it.
  • One of the biggest keys is planning ahead. You want to have answers for their doubts before they voice them, and a game plan for helping parents feel informed and involved.
  • Social proof is big too. Especially in early childhood education, it helps parents to see pictures and videos of their child comfortable and happy as they play outdoors.

When Meghan Morrow started toying with the idea of founding a nature preschool in Duluth, Minnesota, she wondered if she was going down the wrong path. After all, she thought, Minnesota winters are known to be harsh — and there were no other outdoor preschools in the area. 

“I talked to several families that were interested, but they were nervous about pulling away from a more traditional setting,” Meghan said. “They were interested in supporting my school by telling others about it, but not by putting their own child in the program.” 

The weather wasn’t the only aspect of outdoor learning that made the parents hesitate. They also questioned whether Morrow’s Secret Forest Playschool, where a significant portion of the day is spent on 30 acres of woodland, would adequately prepare their children for kindergarten. 

Other educators have also encountered skepticism of outdoor learning on behalf of caregivers. ”It’s not necessarily that they don’t understand the benefits of outdoor play, but often they have trouble getting past their own anxieties surrounding injury or illness,” said Reagan Fulton, who runs Playful Acre Nature School in Cincinnati.

Misconceptions about outdoor learning are fairly commonplace, especially in places where the climate or culture is less conducive to it. But it’s possible to get parents off the proverbial fence about outdoor learning in early childhood education.

In this story, we’ll look at how you can do so in your own child program — and along the way, you’ll hear from other early educators who have done the same.

Children jump across a rope grid placed on a grass field

Communication is key to outdoor learning

When it comes to parents and outdoor learning, there’s no such thing as too much information. 

Be sure to clearly communicate your policy for outdoor time, and repeat the messaging often, so that parents know exactly what to expect before they enroll their child in the program. Use your website, enrollment information materials and meetings (digital as well as in-person) to explain what your outdoor program entails — for example, how often you go outside and in what types of weather. 

“You have to bring the parents with you on the journey,” said Kierna Corr, who helped launch a daily outdoor program at Windmill Integrated Primary School in Dungannon, Northern Ireland, in 2008. 

Good communication needs to happen on an ongoing basis. Jo Skone has been leading children in outdoor learning in the UK for over 30 years, and says it’s always helpful to share pictures with parents, where they can see their children are happy and comfortable outdoors. For this, she uses child care management software to send media straight from her phone.


Addressing parents’ concerns ahead of time

 Find out what it is that parents worry about and try to address their fears. You can do this in several different ways, but you might especially consider these approaches:

  • Explain how you assess risk during outdoor play. Parents appreciate hearing about what strategies you have in place for children's safety, for example in cold weather. 
  • Continuously share resources that speak to the benefits of outdoor learning. There are loads of books, articles and blog posts that help parents understand the ‘why’ behind outdoor learning. You might also consider using an app like Famly, where you can tag which areas of learning you are targeting while the children are outside. 

Reagan Fulton even runs a blog of her own and advocates for the importance of outdoor play through her social media channels. ”Gathering scientific studies about outdoor learning and presenting them in an easily accessible format is something I think is lacking on the educator side, so I’m trying to fill that void myself,” she said.

Help parents experience what outdoor learning looks like

Hearing about the benefits of outdoor play is one thing, but seeing it in action is all the more powerful.

If possible, you could start by considering doing drop-off and/or pick-up outside, rather than inside. That way, parents have a chance to hang around for a few minutes and watch their child actively engaged in the outdoor environment.

Kierna Corr says that this in-person impression can make a big difference in parents’ support.

“Most people get it. When parents see their child writing in mud, they can see that they’re writing with a purpose and that this is different from sitting at a desk,” she said. “One time, we also invited two parents who are paramedics to come in and explain to the other parents that children don’t get colds from being outside.” 

Two children gaze up into a tree above them

Emphasize the importance of good gear

 High-quality outdoor clothing is key to outdoor play in inclement weather.  

Especially as you get started, it’s helpful to educate families about layering and other tricks to stay warm and dry while playing outdoors. 

To make it even easier on her parents and caregivers, Meghan Morrow took the additional step of providing appropriate gear for the kids, and charging a fee to cover the cost. “In the early days of Secret Forest Playschool, the kids came in their own gear, but the quality varied, and that limited the ways I could run the program. Often, parents forgot items as well,” Meghan said. “Once I started to provide gear, that took care of the problem.“ 

While outdoor clothes can be expensive, many online vendors offer discounts for schools and an equipment fee can help cover the initial cost. You can also find spare children’s gear in local secondhand and charity stores, or source gently used clothing from your community.

Provide social proof within your network

If parents fear that an outdoor program might cause their child to fall behind academically, connect them with some of your former families. 

Referrals from peers can have a big impact on parents who have reservations and your former students and their caregivers can be your best advocates. At Secret Forest Playschool, longtime parents are a key resource for helping get new parents on board.

“The biggest resource for my families is getting feedback from the former families who have experienced this school first-hand. When they see that their kids are thriving both outdoors and academically, that usually solves an important part of the puzzle,” Meghan said.

As she explains, addressing parent concerns about school readiness tends to be a higher priority with the older children.

“Most of my students start when they’re three years old, and that year parents are usually a little more on board with the need for outdoor play. The second year is when they start to have academic hesitation and question whether to transition to a traditional program.”

Two young children playing outdoors in a green urban park

Perseverance pays off

Getting caregivers comfortable about outdoor learning can take time, but it’s well worth putting in the effort. Meghan Morrow’s Secret Forest Playschool now has a waitlist. Even the parents who are nervous about outdoor play taking away from academic learning are usually converted once they enroll their child in the program.

“I haven’t yet had a family that hasn’t continued for the second year,” Meghan said. “They have a fear, but when we talk about it, that reassurance is all they need to know that their kid is going to be okay.”

Kierna Corr, at Windmill Integrated Primary School, said that her consistent efforts to educate caregivers have yielded good results as well. Unlike the early days of the program, she rarely encounters parents who are negative to the school’s policy on outdoor learning. 

On the contrary, in fact: “We’ve kept the message going and at this stage, parents apply because they know we’re outside every day.”

Further resources for outdoor learning

If you’d like to learn more, these books and blogs can help reassure parents about the benefits of outdoor learning. 

Books: 

There’s No Such Thing as Bad Weather by Linda Åkeson McGurk

Balanced and Barefoot by Angela Hanscom

Last Child in the Woods by Richard Louv


Blogs and websites:

Free guide: Outdoor Learning in Early Education
Children and Nature Network

Learning through Landscapes

Rain or Shine Mamma

1000 Hours Outside

Tales of a Mountain Mama

Playful Acre

The big ideas

Official Danish Government Reopening Advice

Guidance from the Danish Health Ministry, translated in full to English.

Picture of a Guidance document
UK Nursery Covid-19 Response Group Recommendations

The full recommendations from a working group of over 70 nursery chains in the UK.

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.

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