Children tend to learn best by doing and playing.
While early childhood programs offer opportunities inside the classroom, Noelle Marotta, educational director at Hanna Perkins Center for Child Development in Shaker Heights; Eppie Miller, pre-K teacher and outdoor learning coordinator at the Joseph and Florence Mandel Jewish Day School in Beachwood; and Claire Wilson, first step teacher and early childhood faculty member at Hathaway Brown School in Shaker Heights, suggest focusing outside of the physical classroom.
“My philosophy is that you can teach anything outside that you can teach inside,” Miller said. “And because of the pandemic, we know the safest place to be is outside versus inside. The advantage of being outdoors is that so much of science and the natural world is right there at your fingertips.”
For example, Miller said her students went outside to learn about Rosh Hashanah this year. They learned about trees, apples and the habits of bees. Students were able to observe bees pollinating flowers.
Outdoor activities also tap into a child’s natural creativity and curiosity, Marotta said, as they offer open-ended opportunities. This allows students to develop skills and generate questions they might have about something they are experiencing.
“It encourages creativity and critical thinking and allows them to develop skills that they need,” she noted. “It makes a difference because it allows students to not only choose the activities they want but when they’re outside, it allows them the freedom of space and to explore with other children.”
Marotta said outdoor play also facilitates a natural flow to learning, allowing for discussion to occur naturally.
Outdoor learning is experiential so right there in the moment, an outsider might think it doesn’t look like much, Wilson explained. But, since play is how children learn, taking them outside gives them a place to explore, she said.
“At Hathaway Brown, we have a garden and kids will ask if they can eat something and we can answer yes or no, right there,” she said. “They can recognize these things and that initial curiosity can lead to a whole realm of things. When they are outside and learning about the world around them, it sparks a curiosity that they can take to so many different places.”
Wilson said exploring the outdoors as a learning tool also helps students learn how to try things and work toward accomplishing something.
“They’re learning to do things not to make me happy as their teacher but because they know how good it feels to achieve something that they’ve worked hard for,” she said. “What we’re pleased with the curriculum we’ve developed here is that it allows us to be outside as much as possible and to use it as a strong foundation of everything else we do.”
Outdoor learning is also good for the health of a child, Miller noted.
“When you’re outside, you’re able to use all five senses and experience whatever you’re learning – bringing it to life in the real world,” she said. “There are so many health benefits to being outside too. Not only just during the COVID-19 pandemic where it is beneficial to be outside because of the virus, but we also know it can help with anxiety, ADHD and just being aware and paying attention to your surroundings.”
Children should also be allowed to learn in all weather scenarios – safety permitting.
“It is intentional to have children be outside and learn about each season and its associated weather,” Marotta explained. “Being outside year-round allows time for the kids to explore whole also developing other important skills like learning how to put on their coats, boots and hats.”
At the end of the day, building outdoor time into early childhood education helps shape them as overall learners.
“It provides a really strong foundation,” Wilson stated. “That confidence, motivation and the ability to believe in themselves as well as a connection to nature on a more spiritual level makes a difference. It is holistic to be able to incorporate all of this outdoor play into a child’s development. It leads to resilient, curious and independent learners. They are seeing something with their own eyes. That shapes them.”