outdoor learning

Easy outdoor learning tips for parents

conkers and beech nuts, outdoor learning

Count them, sort them into size (upwards and downwards) or just hold them in your hands…

If you’re over 40, your happiest childhood memories probably involve being outside, so as a parent, you’ll undoubtedly find modern-day experiences of playing outdoors rather different from those you used to enjoy. Life has changed, with busier families and faster, heavier traffic, for example.

Equally, today’s screen-based entertainment is all about being sedentary and indoors. Moreover, the focus on academic achievements often increases the pressure to stay in the classroom for longer than was the case for previous generations.

However, a significant body of research supports formal and informal open-air learning. The natural world is a multisensory, constantly changing playground. By stepping outside, children come to appreciate nature while understanding that learning happens everywhere; moreover, they develop resilience and confidence.  Interacting with nature also boosts well-being, problem-solving skills, creativity and motivation.

clump of daffodils flowers

Dancing daffodils are just one of the delights of the great outdoors…

Yet a report by Persil for its ‘Dirt is good’ campaign revealed that almost a fifth (18%) of kids don’t play outside on a typical day. Indeed, three-quarters of our youngsters spend less time outside than prison inmates, according to one 2016 study. I don’t know about you, but I found these statistics rather alarming, and it inspired me to put (virtual) pen to paper and share some suggestions for ways of helping your kids learn in the great outdoors, wherever you live:

  • Start simply. Begin on a modest scale – just get outside! Remember the games you played as a child and pass them on.
  • Think it through. Sit down and plan how you can spend more time outdoors as a family, whether that’s at an urban farm, beach, park, forest or field. Before starting an activity, consider how your child will benefit from it, assess any risks involved, and how to mitigate or avoid these. Plan any walking routes in advance, and make sure everyone knows what to do in the unlikely event of an emergency.
  • Make it sound fun. Invite friends or the family dog(s) along. It shouldn’t feel like an extension of the daily grind at school.
  • Create a treasure hunt. Dream up some fiendishly tricky clues with little puzzles to solve. For younger children, clues can have a theme, from aliens to pirates, or you could get older siblings involved in writing clues. Geocaching is a similar way of developing problem-solving skills.
  • Go on a word hunt. Peg words to trees or bushes ahead of a walk. Using the words they find, children can create sentences – silly ones are allowed! Can the sentences, or indeed any other outdoor inspiration you encounter, form the basis of a longer creative piece for English homework?
  • Build a den. This is great for problem-solving, teamwork, creativity and learning about using different materials. Maths, physics and engineering all come into play. How can the den be made strong and secure? Where will the access point be? How will the positioning of supporting props and the materials’ weight affect the den’s build and shape? (Encourage the kids to take the lead on all of this themselves.)
  • Use every family outing as a learning opportunity. There are so many things to count, time, observe and collect. Learn distances on walks, time runs, count how many times the stones bounce as you skim them. Note bird, tree, plant, flower and animal species and write up a nature journal, or use things like twigs and cones in an art project. Recently it was mentioned in the press that several words connected with nature are being removed from the Oxford Junior English dictionary – teach your children these words before they disappear!
  • For older children and teenagers, suggest holding a camping party in the garden (with parental permission, of course!). Make smores, boil water for tea and coffee (or milk for hot chocolate) on a campfire and encourage teens to bring along their guitars and sing along.
  • Finally, chat to your child’s school and support any open-air initiatives it organises – schools are often keen to involve parents in these activities. You could start by pointing out that it’s Outdoor Classroom Day on May 17th!

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