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Take early education outdoors – even in winter

The physical and learning benefits of teaching outside mean you should wrap up warm and get on with it, says Nicky Clements

Teaching EYFS

The physical and learning benefits of teaching outside mean you should wrap up warm and get on with it, says Nicky Clements

Midwinter, post-Christmas, cold, dark and damp mornings and evenings.

Probably the last thing a lot of teachers feel like doing is being on outdoor play duty, let alone spending a considerable part of the day outside.


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However, if you teach in the early years, you will no doubt understand that most children don’t quite share an adult’s distaste of freezing, murky weather. And as facilitators of their learning, we should be actively encouraging their outdoor play for a variety of reasons.

1. It boosts learning

Let’s start with the learning. The Scottish government has produced a document for educators simply called ‘Outdoor Learning’, and it is essential reading.

Amid much talk about "knowledge-rich curriculums" and "retaining more knowledge", the document points out that “the multi-sensory experience outdoors helps children and young people to retain knowledge more effectively. There are opportunities for pupils to learn with their whole bodies on a large scale.”

A lot of early years pedagogy relates to experiential learning, linking back to Piaget and Dewey. Montessori practitioners cite experiential learning as an "essential constituent" of the teaching method. And it is not only school/nursery-based education that offers experiential outdoor learning: the Forestry Commission runs sessions on Experiential Learning and Outdoor Play, promoting getting families outdoors.

2. Physical development is crucial for early education

Getting outdoors is also important for supporting a child’s physical development. Age-related expectations tell us that a child age 30-50 months “runs skilfully and negotiates space successfully, adjusting speed or direction to avoid obstacles”.

This is unlikely to be developed fully within the confines of the indoor provision. And for those young children who may not have access to a garden or open space at home, the opportunity to fully execute those skills needs to be provided at school or nursery.

3. Outdoor learning is a non-negotiable right

If that’s still not enough to make you grab your hat and gloves more often during these cold and wet days, many would consider that appropriate outdoor play opportunities are a child’s right.

Indeed, among the many factors included by the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child (2013), if a child is to fully realise their rights, are: “Space to play outdoors in diverse and challenging physical environments, with access to supportive adults, when necessary” and “Opportunities to experience, interact with and play in natural environments and the animal world”.

This is partly because there is a growing body of evidence that links outdoor play with wellbeing. The government-commissioned Natural Connections Demonstration project found that “92 per cent of schools said it improves pupils’ health and wellbeing and engages them with learning”.

Teaching EYFS

So how do you do it?

Try these ideas to get prepared and purposeful for outdoor learning through the winter months:

Plan it in

Commit to planning for part of any direct teaching input sessions to be delivered in the outdoor environment. Maths is particularly ideal for outdoor learning. There is an abundance of natural resources that can be used for both number and shape activities.

Apart from the obvious – but potentially a little boring – counting and shape-hunting, encourage physical exercise during the winter: measure jumps (mark out lines with chalk and get children to write their names where they land); introduce the language of distance and get them comparing lengths and breaking records; keep a scoreboard.

Also, children love to be competitive and time trials around homemade obstacle courses can be very exciting. Again, there are opportunities for recording here: introduce young children to some complex thinking about time.

Get the right kit

Ensure all children (and adults!) have daily access to warm, waterproof outdoor clothing and footwear. If this is likely to be a problem, ask for donations across the school. I spotted a nursery class outdoors last week where lots of children were all sporting the same plain red woolly hat – it is easy to keep a stock supply from a cheap store.

Get active 

Plan for different physical activities and activities that raise the heart rate a little and keep everyone warm. Rig up a stereo outdoors if possible and get dancing. Any ball games work well – young children rarely possess accurate aim and there will be lots of running around after the ball, as well as developing hand-eye coordination.

Get the appropriate fuel

Make flasks of (not too) hot chocolate or warm milk to take outdoors for instant excitement. The big pump-top flasks are useful as they contain a good amount. This has worked really well for me in Forest School sessions with a little protection from the wind: children huddle around listening to a story with their warm drink.

Look for science experiment opportunities

Finally, take advantage of frosty nights. Leave things of interest overnight in play trays filled with water. Again, natural objects add more interest than plastic toys, leading to inquisitive conversations. How has the ice affected the flowers? How can we get them out without damaging them? Can things live in the ice? Why do we put food in a freezer?

Nicky Clements is head of EYFS at Victoria Academies Trust. She tweets @nickyclements71


Further reading


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