Outdoor Learning in Early Childhood: Benefits and Strategies

The great outdoors has much to offer young children. Activities like making mud pies, building forts, and watching ants are not just fun diversions; they’re valuable opportunities to learn and grow.

Working outdoor play into your daily schedule lets kids indulge their innate need to explore the world around them. And while the logistics might seem a little overwhelming at first, the benefits are too compelling to ignore.

In this blog, we explore the importance of outdoor play in early childhood education. Discover the cognitive and physical advantages of nature-based learning and get practical strategies for incorporating outdoor experiences into your curriculum.




Young children reap a multitude of cognitive benefits from spending time learning outdoors. Here’s a breakdown of some key advantages:

Improved Focus

Research suggests that spending time in nature can improve a child’s ability to concentrate. In one study, preschoolers demonstrated better engagement during circle time after free play outdoors compared to free play indoors. In another, preschoolers who played in large natural areas displayed less inattention and impulsivity. Nature-based play has even been shown to mitigate symptoms of ADHD.

Boosted Creativity and Imagination

The unstructured, open-ended nature of outdoor education stimulates creativity and imagination in children. Playing with loose parts like sticks, leaves, and rocks allows children to explore and invent new games and engage in imaginative play. For instance, a stick could be a snake, or a wand, or a shovel, or a telescope.

One study found that children who attended nature-based preschool programs showed significant growth in the creative thinking dimensions of fluency, originality, and imagination.

Greater Problem-Solving Skills

Children encounter challenges in the natural environment, like figuring out how to climb a tree or build a sturdy fort with sticks. Through trial and error, they experiment with different approaches, assess risks, and discover solutions on their own.

Plus, since the environment is constantly changing with elements like wind, uneven terrain, and varying light conditions, children playing outside need to adapt their strategies on the fly. This experiential learning fosters critical thinking, problem solving, and decision-making abilities.

A Sense of Environmental Stewardship

Regular exposure to natural settings during play helps cultivate a connection with the environment, encouraging a sense of responsibility and appreciation for nature as children grow.

Three preschoolers examining a snail in the grassOutdoor learning helps kids discover and appreciate the mysteries of nature



There are also numerous physical benefits of outdoor education, including:

Increased Physical Activity

Being outdoors naturally encourages children to move around more. Activities like tag, jump rope, climbing rocks, or just chasing each other provide a fun way to get exercise, which is crucial for maintaining a healthy weight and reducing the risk of childhood obesity. Outdoor play in preschool has been shown to significantly reduce children’s body mass index and likelihood of obesity.

Enhanced Motor Skills

One of the biggest benefits of outdoor education is that it provides ample opportunities for children to develop gross motor skills like running, jumping, climbing, and balancing. Uneven terrain, playground equipment like swings and scooters, and open spaces all encourage these movements, leading to stronger muscles, improved coordination, and better agility.

Outdoor activities like building a sandcastle, picking flowers, or digging worms out of the dirt also promote the development of fine motor skills.

Girl in a blue dress hanging on a tree branchOutdoor play can build stronger muscles and improved agility

Healthier Bones

Nature-based learning allows children to absorb vitamin D from the sun. This bolsters their immune system and helps in the absorption of calcium, which strengthens bones and teeth.

Reduced Stress and Better Sleep

One study found that children’s stress levels went down when they were exposed to more green spaces, pointing to positive impacts on their physical and mental health. More contact with nature can also lead to better sleep quality, since exposure to natural light helps regulate sleeping patterns.



Start by looking around your outdoor space to see what natural elements are available to use as educational tools. For instance, collecting leaves, rocks, or flowers can lead to lessons on colours, shapes, seasons, and basic science concepts. This approach makes learning tangible and directly connected to the children’s environment.

Gardening is a great activity to teach children about the life cycle as well as the importance of sunlight and water. Try planting vegetables or herbs and involve the children in watering and caring for the plants. If space is limited, you can use containers or hanging baskets.

Preschool children holding seedlings in gardenGardening is an excellent activity for kids of all ages

Here are some other ways of integrating nature into education:

  • Set up a water or sand area and add buckets, shovels, or even kitchen items
  • Cover a fence or a tree trunk with paper for painting
  • Create a weather station
  • Make patterns with leaves, rocks, or other materials
  • Note the sounds different birds make and what colour they are
  • Make maps of the play space
  • Use yarn to measure and compare the diameter of different trees
  • Count the clouds in the sky or ask the children how they think clouds are formed

It’s important to ensure that your outdoor education space is accessible for children with diverse interests and abilities. Incorporate loose parts that allow for varied types of play, such as leaves, stones, boards, pipes, and ropes. Keep in mind that some children might enjoy digging in the dirt, while others might prefer quieter activities like observing insects or listening to the sounds of nature.



Thinking about implementing an outdoor learning program? You may need to deal with a few common challenges.


You can reap the benefits of learning outside even when it’s cold, rainy, or snowy, so long as everyone dresses appropriately. At the Hopealaakso forest preschool in Finland, children spend almost all of their time outside, even during the winter. Teachers continually check the kids’ weather protection and keep them engaged in activities like skating and snowball fights to stay warm.

Preschool class out for a walk in the snow With the right gear, you can have fun in all seasons

Clothing and Gear

The cost of outerwear can be a barrier for some families. Consider having a stock of weather-appropriate clothing (hats, boots) and basic outdoor gear (backpacks, magnifying glasses) available for students who might not have access to them at home. Some schools lend out coats and gloves or provide hand and feet warmers when needed.

You can ask for community donations, host a gear swap, or talk to local schools about taking their unclaimed lost and found items.

Adult Attitudes

Some parents may be initially uncomfortable with the idea of outdoor learning compared to traditional classroom settings. To address this, Marley Jarvis of the National Center on Early Childhood Development, Teaching, and Learning suggests creating a statement outlining your program’s philosophy regarding outdoor play.

“You can build this with input from staff as well as from families and use that as a guide to have these conversations around what it might take or what it might look like to have daily contact with nature and outdoor play and exploration, and what that might look like in your program,” she said in a recent webinar.

“Then if you have the defined philosophy statement, it can be included in family welcoming materials and it can be something that helps guide those conversations so that everybody’s sort of on the same page.”



“Access to active play in nature and outdoors—with its risks—is essential for healthy child development,” notes a position statement from a group of Canadian researchers. “Risky active play is an important part of childhood and should not be eliminated from the schoolyard or childcare centre.”

That said, you want to create an outdoor learning environment that allows children to explore and learn while reducing the probability of severe injury. Here are some tips:

  • Establish clear boundaries for exploration and ensure children understand where they are allowed to go.
  • Maintain a clear line of sight with all children.
  • Inspect the outdoor space for potential hazards such as unstable surfaces, broken glass, or sharp rocks under a climbing area.
  • Identify any potentially harmful plants in the area (e.g., poison ivy) and teach students not to touch them.
  • Ensure easy access to drinking water to keep children hydrated, especially on hot days or during physically demanding activities.
  • Be prepared to adjust activities or move indoors during extreme weather conditions like high winds or thunderstorms.
  • Have a clear emergency action plan in place, including procedures for lost children, falls in water, insect bites, and other first aid situations.



Have a look at the Early Childhood Education diploma from Herzing College. It takes just 14 months to complete and includes eight weeks of hands-on experience in a preschool or daycare. Training is delivered online and is available in English and French.

Click below to get complete program details and chat live with a friendly admissions advisor. We’re here to help!

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