An award-winning approach to outdoor learning

Published on Wednesday, 19 February 2020

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Young children need sensory stimulation and room to move, so instead of keeping kids indoors, many early learning services recognise the importance of outdoor play and offer a variety of open-air experiences. 

Children might spend their days tending to veggie patches, excavating sandpits or galloping across grass, and there’s evidence that all this al fresco activity has a positive effect on youngsters’ bodies and brains. 

To understand how outdoor learning benefits under fives, we spoke with Kelly Hedderman, the owner of Learning Tree Family Day Care in Sutherland, NSW.

This family day care service won the Excellence in Outdoor Learning Environment Award at last year’s Excellence in Early Childhood Education Awards (NSW) and Kelly is enthusiastic about early education being offered outside. 

Congratulations on your award, Kelly. At Learning Tree Family Day Care, there is an emphasis on children having fun in the fresh air, so could you please explain some of the social and developmental benefits associated with outdoor learning?

Outdoor play has both mental and physical advantages for under-fives. 

When it comes to behaviour, studies have shown that children who play outside in a natural environment have better stress and mood recovery capabilities, are calmer and can concentrate better, for longer periods.

Cooperative outdoor play also provides an opportunity for children to learn group dynamics, work collaboratively and increase their social skills.

Outdoor learning provides increased opportunities for vigorous physical activity too (keeping in mind that some children need encouragement, and being outside is not always enough to be active). This physicality provides children with a healthy body, as muscles and bones respond to the activity, and it provides opportunities for children to develop their very important gross motor skills as they walk, run, jump, climb and practice their general coordination. 

Exposure to a safe level of vitamin D from sunlight keeps bones and muscles strong and healthy, and it also assists in brain development and function, supporting each child’s ability to learn new things.

Young children also learn how to take safe risks, plan, problem-solve, negotiate and multi-task in the comfort of a safe and supervised outdoor environment. 

Outdoor facilities vary between early learning services, so could you tell us what the outdoor space is like at Learning Tree Family Day Care?

I’m very lucky to have a large outdoor area with a big grassy hill. The uneven terrain is perfect for new walkers because their balance is repeatedly challenged and they learn very quickly to walk and run. This upright momentum carries on to other gross motor skills, like running, jumping and climbing. 

We also have a range of climbing equipment, a cubby house, mud kitchen, sandpit, tyres and planks, and these all play a main role in our imaginative play. Every day these things get transformed into a pirate ship, café, giant spider web, treasure islands and more, and we also create obstacle courses with the tyres and planks. 

We have a forest garden, veggie patch and flower garden too, and these areas teach the children respect for plants and the environment. They love seeing where our food comes from as they harvest tomatoes, lettuces or radishes.

What outdoor activities do the children get up to while in your care? 

The children are free to choose if they want to spend time indoors or outdoors. Inevitably their natural preference is to be outside for 90 per cent of the day. During free play is when the children’s imagination comes alive and their vocabulary grows. Their social skills are also developing as they role-play.

We play lots of group games as well, like Leapfrog, Dodgeball and Hide ’N’ Seek, and this gets the children moving and develops their social skills, listening skills and patience. 

We also love messy play using lots of water, sand and dirt. The children are definitely discouraged from wearing ‘nice’ clothes because the messier the child, the more fun they’ve had! 

We do all our painting and craft outside and often scavenge around the yard to find natural materials to add to their creations. Weather is rarely a deterrent to being outside and we live by the adage that ‘there’s no such thing as bad weather, just inappropriate clothing.’ In the rain it’s great fun to get on our gumboots, raincoats and find some muddy puddles.

This sounds like so much fun for little ones! When a child isn’t at care, how can parents incorporate outdoor play into their home life?

Outdoor play with children is so easy and it’s often free. 

Children are natural explorers and full of curiosity, which means that a collection of rocks, leaves and sticks can become a million different things. They can be used on so many craft activities, igniting the child’s inner artist. Painted rock collections are always a hit, as well as gluing on flowers or leaves to complement a drawing. 

If a child is playing inside with their toys, parents just need to bring the toys outside. It gives the youngster’s role-playing another dimension, opens up more possibilities and gets them wanting to be outside more and more. 

Also, I recommend that parents let children take risks. This can be understandably hard for some parents, but taking a step back and letting a child assess the risk and attempt a task is so rewarding and beneficial for their development. Don’t stop them from climbing that tree, just be there to lend a hand when needed. 

Finally, remember that children are water and dirt-proof. They can be washed, so let them get dirty. There are so many physical and mental health benefits associated with messy, sensory play, so it’s always a good idea.

How do you tailor outdoor activities to each child’s age and interest?

Having a range of ages together is a wonderful benefit of family day care, and all activities can be modified to make sure everyone is included. 

Examples include gentle soccer games, providing more support for young ones through the obstacle course and having ‘easy’ items to find in the treasure hunt, as well as more elusive ones.

Our activities are tailored towards the children’s interests, experiences the families have shared, or goals the families have identified for their child. 

For instance, we might recreate a farm after a child visited a real farm over the holidays, encourage superhero role-play to get children racing around the yard, put on a concert for musical children, using the stone steps as the stage, or create a monster truck course in the sandpit. 

It is also important to let the children have free time and decide what and how they play. They often imitate real life and incorporate this into their play as a way of making sense of their world and all the social rules. It is also an opportunity to let their imaginations take flight, allowing them to create their own worlds and situations as they go.

Why do you think family day care is such a great choice for under-fives? 

Family day care is a wonderful child care option. We use the same curriculum framework and are held to the same high standards as long day care centres. 

With one educator to four children, parents can be guaranteed that their child is forming a genuine connection and getting one-on-one attention to their needs throughout the day. 

Activities and routines are carefully tailored to each child’s needs, and with fewer distractions than in a large group, educators can really focus on each child’s social skills and getting them ready for the school experience. 

Also, having a range of ages can be a huge advantage in small groups because the younger ones learn in leaps and bounds by observing older children, and the older children love mentoring and teaching younger ones, which gives them a chance to experience and develop their leadership skills. Whether they’re learning indoors or outdoors, the children thrive at family day care. 

Further reading Sensory play in child care
Child Mind Institute: Ideas for getting your kids into nature

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