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By Kathryn Solly

Some thoughts, background and research about outdoor learning and its importance to children’s lives.




In recent years the Foundation Stage, including Reception and Year One have been constantly bombarded with lots of new initiatives and changes in order to raise standards. The fact that the outdoor environment has been sadly neglected in favour of a constant focus on the traditional school classroom within these initiatives is in my opinion a serious flaw. The forest school approach, outdoor play and other similar outdoor initiatives are led by children’s interests and needs. This provides an alternative view of each child and their particular development as is well recognised in Scotland and Scandinavian countries. Being outdoors is beneficial to a child’s all-round development and particularly the areas of personal, social and emotional development, language and communication and physical development – these prime areas also link strongly to the principles laid down by the EYFS guidance. Outdoors provides opportunities for children to rise to new challenges, to take risks, problem-solve and develop their thinking skills through deep involvement. This is complementary to what occurs in the classroom and is transferable. My experiences in an open-air school for 17 years and to my teaching career spent enjoying outdoor learning across the phases of education have reinforced this important and yet vastly under-valued environment for learning. Outdoors benefits everyone as we have started to understand with the pandemic but it has amazing value-added when we consider the developmental growth and progress that diverse young children can make if they are allowed to play and learn outdoors whatever their starting point.

The importance of play:

Children’s play happens in all societies and cultures around the world. We know that play is critical to young children’s development, emotional wellbeing and cognitive learning and it enables us as a species to be highly adaptable. However, children’s rights and opportunities to play are often compromised or constrained in modern urbanised societies who are risk-adverse and particularly in relation to play outdoors. High quality education takes time and it is no mistake that human children need time to develop. Bruce (1987) argues that play is one of the most important settings for the encouragement of potential learning. She describes play as involving children directing and initiating situations themselves, with varying support from adults as ‘sensitive co-ordinators.’


Play outdoors is different and complimentary to play indoors. It is powerful and enabling and is just as important. Yet it is so often dismissed as just ‘playtime’ and seen merely as an opportunity to ‘let off steam’ before the serious learning happens indoors.


As Froebel recognised all those years ago play is a chance for children to start their active engagement of making sense of the world around them, of living things, of seasons, weather, nature and their place within it before adults start imposing their ideas. This fuels their curiosity, engagement and desire to explore further. Outdoors is about ‘hands-on’ sensorial and physical learning in an open-ended fashion that is engaging, meaningful and interesting. Add to this the huge benefits of new vocabulary and language and we start to see what we are avoiding. The communication opportunities outdoors are far richer and more varied than indoors. Children really understand positional language, and many become experts at gathering knowledge about particular plants, animal, rocks etc. Engaged children are motivated and thinking.


What children need:

There are several important factors which need to be considered for holistic child development:

  • Time: develop at their own pace and explore their own interests.
  • Agency: influence over what they do and some choices.
  • Belonging: as part of a community.
  • Competence: the feeling of being successful.

These are far more likely to be fulfilled outdoors as the pressures on teaching staff are less apparent.


Growing independence does not happen suddenly but is a process which is unique to each child.  Montessori and other pioneers recognised that for children to be independent they need to thrive. From birth adults should encourage independence as much as is developmentally appropriate. For example:

  • Self-feeding, peeling fruit, spreading toast.
  • Wiping own face etc.
  • Using real crockery and accept things get broken.
  • Putting on and taking off clothing and footwear.


If we want children to be ‘school ready’ they have to have belief in their own competence so we must let them do things for themselves and this is particularly where outdoors is so beneficial. There are of course some transitions for each child when moving into outdoor environments for the first few times. Many will lack confidence and appear over excited or anxious but as their self-esteem grows they will start to move away from adults. They will then start to question, discover and explore by themselves. As they settle they become calmer and although still excited and interested, they begin to notice changes in the natural world. Through their questions they start to incorporate and consolidate they learning as its evident in how they use their new skills independently.


So how and why does outdoors assist this growing independence?

Learning outdoors is more engaging, relevant and motivational.

It nurtures creativity and imagination allowing play to develop through experimentation and imagination over time. Outdoors also has some very useful other benefits in that everyone is healthier and thus attendance improves and the space and relative freedom reduces behaviour issues. Children become more interested in their environment.




                                                      The specialness of outdoors:


Outdoors has unique and positive characteristics which the EYFS recognises. However, children need the support of attentive and engaged adults who as enthusiastic about the outdoors and understand the importance of outdoor learning. Their approach considers the child at the centre of the experiences and opportunities within a richly resourced environment with almost limitless resources that children can adapt and use in many different ways. The transition to outdoors occurs via supportive staff who do not intervene too quickly, and who encourage children to make choices whilst teaching them about hazards and how to stay safe through achievable experiences matched to their uniqueness. This outdoor approach allows learning to become creative, personal and active because it is about them and their interests so they are ‘disposed’ to learn. Julie Fisher (1996) stressed this ‘readiness’ to learn as being present from birth if the environment and learning is adapted to meet their intellectual needs: “A child is ready to learn when his or her cognitive disposition and what is being taught are matched.”



The Characteristics of Effective Learning provide the basis of outdoor play and learning in that children are learning actively, are more likely to ‘have a go’, explore, investigate and try things out for themselves. As a result, they are more likely to persist if they encounter difficulties and to enjoy their achievements as a direct result. They also develop their own ideas creatively and find strategies to develop tings further. Thus, there needs to be a balance between child and adult based experiences as children engage with others, plus an adventurous and suitably challenging array of choices in their secure environments. The teaching staff must use their knowledge of each child, their interests and needs as a starting point to provide support and enrichment via suitably broad curricular provision outdoors.


The benefits of outdoors:


A variety of research shows:

  • Children have higher achievement in reading, maths, science, PE, drama and greater motivation to study science when given longer term experiences outdoors. Dillon & Dickie (2012), Blakesley, Rickinson & Dillon (2013), Fiennes (2015).
  • Lower achievers, SEN, minority ethnic groups showed the greatest benefits. Fiennes et al. (2015), Hunt et al. (2016)
  • Some children and adults gain social capital by fostering pride, belonging and involvement in the community.

Dillon & Dickie (2012)

  • Studies have shown improved attendance and behaviour. Price (2015)
  • Adventure learning increases progress by 3 months. Education Endowment Foundation (2016)
  • More positive attitudes to physical activity. Mitchell & Shaw (2015)
  • Children with a range of emotional and developmental needs appear from research to benefit the most from a forest school approach.


However, there also some other huge health benefits:

  • Infection rates go down.
  • Eyesight improves.
  • Sensory needs can be satisfied – tummy time, core body etc.
  • Movement increases and physicality improves by 24%.
  • Diabetes, obesity and cardio vascular diseases decrease.
  • Bone density improves.
  • Serotonin levels go up – happy children are dirty children!
  • Cortisol (stress) levels decrease when exposed to the natural greens and blues of nature.
  • Symptoms of ADD, ADHD and aggressive behaviours decline.


There is a growing amount of research which demonstrates that green space is good for our children and ourselves. We know it instinctively as adults but there are hundreds of studies to prove it: green spaces calm minds, help us focus, make us happier and reduces anxiety. Blue spaces, including the sea and coastline, rivers, lakes, canals, and waterfalls have been used for therapy (hydrotherapy) for years. Blue space can make you and your child happier, less stressed, more sociable, and environmentally aware by giving a serious mental health boost. People who regularly visit blue spaces in their free time reported greater well-being and reduced risk of depression as studies from Hong Kong (2018) and Ireland (2018) demonstrated. One extensive review of dozens of earlier studies in Barcelona (2017) showed that interacting with blue spaces had a positive impact on mental health and stress reduction, as well as greater physical activity.


One of the most shared benefits of green and blue spaces for alleviated symptoms in children with ADHD. The BREATHE project in these cities has the aim of studying the impact of air pollution in cities on the cognitive development of children looked at the association between contact with green (vegetated) and blue (beaches) spaces and behavioural development indicators as well as ADHD symptoms in children. It found that higher beach attendance each year was associated with decreased total difficulties and peer relationship problems, and increased prosocial behaviour.

Besides mental and physical health boosts, like green space, blue space can lead to greater nature connection or environmental awareness in children. This and other studies found increased positive attitudes about school, about friendships and greater environmental awareness among the benefits of the program. It seems that less polluted air and more sunlight, blue spaces are just healthier and people who live by water tend to be more physically active.


Researchers say that the soft visual stimuli of water as we observe it, or the patterns of light falling on it as it flows, holds our attention without any conscious effort, offering recovery from cognitive fatigue. This is called Attention Restoration Theory, and it suggests that the calming effects of nature give our brains a break, allowing us, and our children, a chance to restore our minds. The suggested theory as to why blue environments are such mood boosters is that negative ions reduce symptoms of depression. These are molecules floating in the air or atmosphere that have been charged with electricity. In nature, you can find them anywhere from ultraviolet (UV) rays from the sun, to wherever water collides with itself like a waterfall or the ocean shore. Researchers looked at 100 years of studies and found evidence that negative ions could also help regulate sleep patterns and mood, reduce stress, boost immune system function, increase metabolism and kill or inhibit the growth of harmful bacteria, viruses, and mould species, such as E. coliStaphylococcus aureus, and the bacterium that causes tuberculosis. So, getting children out into blue space can be just as restorative as green space.



So why are we not ensuring that children go outdoors much more?


It seems that over recent years we have become increasingly urban and indoor focussed and many adults lack real personal experience of being outdoors. Some of us are encultured by our own upbringing and experiences to dislike being outdoors. Just consider the popularity of indoor shopping centres over the average high street. This is due to predictability, the fact we may get wet, cold and dirty is something to avoid. Sadly, then this may be passed onto children.


There are also other factors operating such as differing perceptions of teaching/learning where indoors is seen as more effective and powerful. Others are frightened of the potential of litigation because of any accident or simply feel uneasy or lack confidence in their professional roles and responsibilities outdoors. Now id the time to go outdoors and take your school with you. You should lead and they will follow. Be brave and do the best thing possible.


Some final questions for your own reflection:


  1. Does outdoor learning have equal value to indoor learning in our school?
  2. Do we provide suitable outdoor clothing and footwear for children and adults?
  3. Is outdoor learning having a positive impact on children’s well-being and development?
  4. Are children receiving the support of attentive and engaged adults who are enthusiastic about the outdoors and understand the importance of outdoor learning?
  5. Is your outdoor learning environment richly resourced with play materials that can be adapted and used in different ways by the children themselves?
  6. Does your approach to outdoor learning consider experiences rather than equipment whilst placing children at the centre of the provision being made?
  7. Are your team passionate about being outdoors year-round?
  8. Are we planning experiences for children that build on all the children’s interests, fascinations, preferences and motivations as starting points in our planning and provision outdoors as well as indoors?
  9. Do we really value their strengths as active learners and problem solvers? Or are we simply expecting them to be compliant, passive recipients of new skills and knowledge?
  10. Do we want to return to nature and outdoors in our teaching and learning





Blakesley, D., M. Rickinson, and J. Dillon, Engaging children on the autistic spectrum with the natural environment: Teacher insight study and evidence review. 2013.

Bruce, T. (1987) Early Childhood Education. Sevenoaks: Hodder and Stoughton.

Dillon, J. and I. Dickie, Learning in the Natural Environment: Review of social and economic benefits and barriers. Natural England Commissioned Reports, 2012(092).

Education Endowment Foundation, Outdoor Adventure Learning. 2016.

Fiennes, C., et al., The Existing Evidence- Base about the Effectiveness of Outdoor Learning. Institute of Outdoor Learning, Blagrave Trust, UCL & Giving Evidence Report 2015.

Fjørtoft, I., Landscape as Playscape: The Effects of Natural Environments on Children’s Play and Motor Development. Children, Youth and Environments, 2004. 14(2): p. 21-44.

Fisher, J (1996) Starting from the Child. Buckingham: Open University Press.

Hunt, A. et al (2016) Monitor of Engagement with the Natural Environment: a pilot to develop an indicator of visits to the natural environment by children. 2016.NECR 208.

Hignett, A., White, M.P., Pahl, S., Jenkin, R., Le Froy, M., (2018). Evaluation of a surfing programme designed to increase personal well-being and connectedness to the natural environment among ‘at risk’ young people.Journal of Adventure Education and Outdoor Learning, 18(1), 53-69.

Lovell, R., L. O’Brien, and R. Owen, (2010)  Review of the research evidence in relation to the role of trees and woods in formal education and learning. Forest Research, 2010.

Mitchell, R. and R. Shaw, Health impacts of the John Muir Award. undated University of Glasgow: John Muir Trust: GCPH: Glasgow.

Natural England Access to Evidence Information Note EIN017 Links between natural environments and learning: evidence briefing

Price, A., (2015) Improving school attendance: can participation in outdoor learning influence attendance for young people with social, emotional and behavioural difficulties? Journal of Adventure Education and Outdoor Learning, 2015. 15(2): p. 110-122.

Rickinson, M., et al., (2004) A review of research on outdoor learning. 2004, London: National Foundation for Educational Research and King’s College London.

Scholz, U. and H. Krombholz, (2007) A study of the physical performance ability of children from wood kindergartens and from regular kindergartens. Motorik Mar, 2007. 1: p. 17 – 22.

Price, A., (2015) Improving school attendance: can participation in outdoor learning influence attendance for young people with social, emotional and behavioural difficulties? Journal of Adventure Education and Outdoor Learning, 2015. 15(2): p. 110-122.





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