The Importance of Outdoor Learning

Dr Kumaree Padayichie

What are the benefits of outdoor learning for primary school children?

What is Outdoor Learning?

The quote by Brooke Hampton, “Children still need a childhood with dirt, mud, puddles, trees, sticks and tadpoles” is more apt than ever in today’s digital age.

Our fledgling generation is exposed to a digital era and ‘plug-in’ entertainment in their circumambient environment. It is incontrovertible that the new age or information age that we live in has a multitude of exceptional benefits and having access to these digital resources is an advantage. However, as impressive as the advantages are, it has led to the detriment of children’s holistic development; that which is provided through outdoor learning as highlighted by Marais (2021), who purports that playing in nature supports children’s holistic development and benefits their physical, emotional and social wellbeing. Friedman et al (2022), concurs that outdoor play is essential for healthy development, especially in children’s early years as being energetic outside, provides children with invaluable experiences that can directly influence their physical and emotional development, social skills, creativity and even their intelligences. Poppell & Monroe (2017), firmly state that decreased interactions with nature can harm children's physical health and cognitive development and create a gap between children and their environment. According to Wyver (2019), there is converging evidence that repetitive exposure to high quality, amorphous outdoor play opportunities have a positive impact on social and cognitive development.

Learning outside and the impact of technologies

Generation Alpha is the generation following Generation Z and currently includes all children born in or after 2010 which is the same year that the iPad was released. This is the first generation of children who will never be exposed to a time when social media did not exist and they are far more technically perspicacious than any preceding generation, which is a dynamic tool that can change civilisation in innumerable progressive ways (Cottrell, 2022). With all things considered, as technological devices are becoming increasingly accessible, the amount of time that children spend outside actively playing has decreased significantly. Hence, modern-day children spend extensively less time outside than did children in preceding generations (Anderson-McNamee & Bailey, 2010).

Impact of COVID-19 on Outdoor Play

Another key point is that Generation Alpha are some of the first generation born into the COVID-19 pandemic, hence they will be more diverse than any other generation (Cottrell, 2022). The COVID‑19 pandemic flabbergasted the world and it was with incredulity that every part of life even the mundane was disrupted on a national and global scale, as it unnerved the fabric of human existence as we knew it. As multiple challenges were being faced due to the COVID-19 pandemic, it was further compounded by the closure of schools, which had a ripple effect in health, social and the holistic well-being of children internationally. The novel virus impacted Early Childhood Education outcomes and Care (ECEC) and Hobbs & Bernard (2021), correspondingly state that it impacted pre-school children in several ways, including cognitive development, social, emotional and behavioural development and mental health, primary school readiness (communication and language development; personal, social and emotional development; and literacy) and physical development.

To manage the unprecedented time of COVID-19, in terms of education outcomes, the shift to online learning was implemented and this was not apposite for learners in the early years as this method of teaching and learning is not adequate for their stage of development. Parents, guardians and caregivers precipitously assumed the role of educators. Consequently, as most of them are not teachers, and many are unfamiliar with the educational programmes’ content and pedagogical tools, this further disadvantaged children during lockdown [OECD Policy Responses to Coronavirus (COVID-19) 2020].

As stated by Hobbs & Bernard (2021), concerns were raised by academics about the minimal opportunities for children to play and participate in physical activity due to pandemic restrictions. The COVID-19 pandemic has also highlighted the unequal access to green spaces by diverse populations and the percentage of families with no access to gardens or communal spaces and parental time constraints coupled with the fact that parents also made the transference to working online.

Outdoor learning in Home Environments

Outdoor play may not be feasible in the home environment for a myriad of reasons. Bento & Dias (2017), elaborate those opportunities for outdoor play are waning, due to globalisation, technology expansion, urban growth and by considering the domicile of the children in terms of urban and rural areas. A mounting culture of fear about the possible accidents that might happen affect parent's and professionals’ approach towards outdoor play. Given these points, children tend to be kept inside, engaged in structured activities, and controlled by adults. Due to the latter, playing outdoors in the early childhood environment is possibly the only prospect that children have to play spontaneously in a secure setting (Bento & Dias, 2017).

Risk and the Outdoor Learning Environment

The importance of taking risks is further elucidated by Marais (2021), who states that challenging natural spaces promote risk assessment skills while building confidence and proficiency and developing resilience. Warden (2020) is synchronised with Marais (2021), view in that young children need challenge and risk within a framework of security and safety. Children need to set and meet their own challenges, become aware of their limits and push their abilities (at their own pace). As a results, children will learn through trial and error and experience the gratification of feeling capable and competent and like a butterfly their wings will unfold. The following quote is felicitous in this respect, ‘If you want a butterfly world, don’t step on the caterpillar’ (The Metaphor of Metamorphosis, 2021).


Outdoor learning considerations
Outdoor learning considerations

Outdoor Play and the Primary School Curriculum

  • Formal Curriculum

According to Zarco (n.d), UNESCO defines the formal curriculum as “the planned programme of objectives, content, learning experiences, resources and assessment offered by a school.” The outdoor space and curriculum must harness the special nature of the outdoors, to offer children what the indoors cannot (Warden, 2020). Thus, by taking the formal curriculum into account teachers should plan not only indoor lessons but outdoor lessons, such as forest schools, for learners to develop holistically.

  • Informal Curriculum

The informal curriculum goes beyond the formal aspect and is usually found in the way of co-curricular activities which will benefit the learner’s physical development and provide opportunities for outdoor activities (Zarco n.d).

  • Hidden Curriculum

The hidden curriculum refers to the unwritten, unofficial, and often unintended lessons, values, and perspectives that children learn in primary school. This is important as it pertains to outdoor learning as well as learners need to understand their world. For example, children must be encouraged to accept responsibility for the spruceness of the outdoor environment by packing away toys and any equipment they have used and disposing of litter, be able to wait their turn and to share equipment (Zarco n.d). Warden (2020), echoes these sentiments by stating that children can take an active role in setting up, clearing away and caring for the outdoor space. Resultantly, it is crucial that embedded within the curriculum is value-based instruction as this is not only significant in 21st Century teaching and learning but affords children with a platform to becoming global citizens.

The Outdoor Learning Environment and the Need for Play

The outdoor learning environment encourages learners to use their imagination, build cognitive skills, acquire social skills and sets the building blocks in place to develop the child holistically. Play is a skill that comes naturally to every child. Play is key for many developmental skills such as building on fine motor, cognitive development, and more (Hooven 2017:2). The benefits of play are immense as children gain knowledge through their play, increase their problem-solving abilities through games and puzzles, strengthen their language skills by modelling other children and adults, allows children to be creative while developing their own imaginations whilst discovering, investigating and exploring the world in which they live (Anderson-McNamee & Bailey 2010).

The link to the video below highlights the ‘Power of play from a child’s perspective’.

Outdoor Education (OE)

Outdoor education fosters inquiry-based learning as it involves open-ended investigation into learners’ queries. This approach to education views children as being active agents in their own learning and capable of critical engagement in their own lives. The focus of inquiry-based learning is on children’s own questions, observations and interpretations of the world around them and thus making learning more meaningful (MacDonald & Breunig, 2018). Exploratory play in primary schools allows children time to discover and manipulate their surroundings (Anderson-McNamee & Bailey, 2010). Agostini, Minelli & Mandolesi (2018), additionally conveys that those exploratory behaviours in nature strengthen the locomotor and immune systems and children are therefore less predisposed to illness, and consequently more balanced. Given that, it is then imperative that teachers plan for the appropriate and creative use of the outdoors to develop learners holistically.

Outdoor learning child outcomes
Outdoor learning child outcomes

Outdoor Learning and Holistic Development

Holistic development is an approach to learning that emphasises the importance of the physical, emotional and psychological well-being of children, particularly in early childhood. It can be further described as learning and interacting with the natural world and prospects for challenge, risk-taking, and social development (Foundation Education 2018). The outdoor environment provides a platform for holistic development and Marais (2021), eloquently puts forth that nature play also develops children’s cognitive abilities and social skills as they explore their world, challenge themselves and interact with others. Each learner is an individual and their outdoor ‘lived experience’ interlocks in various ways. They are unique with each having their own form and character. Educators provide learners with pieces of fabric to complete their ‘life quilt’ where the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. Spending time in the outdoors helps children identify with nature and helps children gain self-confidence and respect for the world around them. Socialisation is a crucial part of early childhood and by providing learners with opportunities to enjoy an early childhood education they will grow to be well rounded, mature individuals armed with skills that will carry them through their adult life.

Safe Outdoor Equipment and Spaces

Outdoor play is an important part of the daily programme and safety must be a priority. Careful attention must be paid to the choice of outdoor toys and equipment to ensure that they are safe and durable and will stimulate and educate the children. The teacher's role in supervising outdoor play is especially important and needs to closely supervise the children in their care. Areas to consider are fall zones, surfacing, access to shade, and the conditions of materials and equipment (The Outdoor Environment Designing for Learning, 2021).

Educational model of outdoor learning
Educational model of outdoor learning

Planning Outdoor Activities that accommodate for the holistic development of a child

The outdoor learning environment should be designed with intentionality to inspire and motivate school engagement and must accommodate the needs of each individual. Outdoor spaces must support inclusion, meet the needs of individuals, and offer diverse play-based experiences. The outdoor play area should be an aesthetically inviting and stimulating environment that accommodates for investigative learning, physical development, literacy, mathematics and expressive arts. This type of environment allows learners to learn through play, discover and explore within a child friendly, safe and secure environment that will develop children's problem-solving and creative skills and support multiple intelligences (Warden, 2020).

The learning areas that a playground can accommodate for will depend on the layout and infrastructure of the primary school. When primary schools experience a lack of space, the outdoor learning areas are rotated so that learners are exposed to a range of learning opportunities. Examples of areas for outdoor learning are reflecting below.

  1. Quiet Area: Passive activities or materials that allow children to transition to their outdoor space should be included in this area where items such as blankets, books or writing/painting materials can be made available. In terms of planning, it should be away from energetic space that learners occupy [Outdoor Play (EYFS), n.d.].
  2. Manipulative Area: This area comprises of materials and activities that promote fine-motor skills and items such as threading, lacing, construction tools, etc must be available.
  3. Physical Area: promotes physical development and children should have access to a broader range of movements like running, balancing, swinging, climbing, or digging which can include obstacle courses, monkey bars, climbing frames and tunnels. These physical opportunities assist children to develop their core strength, stability, balance, spatial awareness, co-ordination and dexterity [Outdoor Play (EYFS)n.d.]. The types of playground equipment to support this type of play must be examined.
  4. Social Area: Personal, Social and Emotional Development (PSED)When it comes to social skills, children can play in larger groups when given more space outdoors. This can help them develop better social skills and learn to manage and regulate their emotions in a large group [Outdoor Play (EYFS)n.d.]. For emotional development, any amount of time spent exercising in the fresh air boosts well-being and mental health among children. Mullan, 2019 supplements this statement in that children will often be less inhibited outside, and more willing to become involved with activities, engage in discourse and come out of their shells. Subsequently, for those learners who are not social butterflies this environment presents them with ample opportunities for communication and exchange of ideas.
  5. Dramatic Area: as children often engage in pretend play while they are outside, this area of play can be enhanced by providing some extra props to support bodily-kinesthetic, interpersonal and intrapersonal, logical-mathematical, spatial, musical, naturalist, and linguistic intelligences. Playhouse, costumes, wheeled toys, are items that promote imaginative and interactive play, including theatre (puppet stands), dance, or music props should be available in this area (McFarland & Adhikary, 2006:27). The planning of this area must give consideration to gender and culture as activities planned should be available for children regardless of their ethnicity and gender. For example, provide a variety of cooking props that the families in your class might cook with at home and any dolls or pictures you use represent a variety of ethnicities (McFarland & Adhikary, 2006:29). As can be noted, this area can provide opportunities to develop a culture of respect and recognition. The latter should be representative of any activity that is planned.
  6. Sensory Area: activities or materials that allow children to explore and discover through their senses.
  7. Mathematics Area: hands-on use of real objects is the foundation of developing mathematical understanding and as with all learning, engagement is the key, whether it is through counting stones, leaves, pacing out distances or finding shapes we recognise in the world around us. Role-play can also be incorporated into math and literacy learning for young children by setting up a shop, a post-office, etc. (Mullan, 2019).
  8. Sandpit Area: provides infinite opportunities for learners to build physical and social skills. As sand play is tactile, it assists learners to gain knowledge regarding different textures and develops their fine motor skills and hand-eye coordination. It also fosters language development, creativity, socialising and sensory and tactile stimulation (Play in The Sand! 2018).
  9. Music Area: outside music activities support musical intelligence and offer a perfect setting for loud instruments and instruments such as cymbals, tambourines, or even one’s that the children make themselves (McFarland & Adhikary, 2006:26).
  10. Art Area: fingerpainting, large murals with chalk, markers, or crayons, footprint or handprint painting, or sidewalk chalk will support bodily-kinesthetic, spatial, logical-mathematical, intrapersonal, and interpersonal intelligences (McFarland & Adhikary, 2006:26).
  11. Construction: construction projects often offer children with strong interpersonal skills a leadership role in resolving conflict, fostering cooperation and suggesting solutions (McFarland & Adhikary, 2006:27).
  12. Nature/Science Area: In a world where we are digitally driven, there has been an increase in children’s use of technology which has led to rising concern about how it affects children's development and their holistic development. With greater reason than ever, it is imperative that, 'We must teach our children to smell the earth, to taste the rain, to touch the wind, to see things grow, to hear the sunrise and nightfall – to care.' John Cleal. Hence, a primary school garden is a powerful environmental education where learners learn focus and patience, tolerance, cooperation, collaboration and social skills and gain self-assurance (Marais, 2021). Educators can develop children's appreciation of the beauty of Mother Nature from an early age.

The list below outlines how a garden in a typical school day facilitates and promotes life-long learning by providing hands-on experience and more significantly identifying the value of sustainable living.  

Educational Aims: What children will learn to drive school engagement

- Gardening: How to grow things in a safe and sustainable way, how to run their own successful gardens, enjoy gardening and have positive attitudes to agriculture.

- Nutrition: How to grow food for themselves, improve their diet and prepare healthy meals with garden produce.

- Marketing: Business skills and entrepreneurship

- Environment: Environmental awareness

- School subjects: Particular subjects through active, hands-on experience.

- Life skills: How to plan, take decisions, collaborate, take responsibility.


The links below provides examples of how outdoor spaces can be designed to provide invitational and optimal learning opportunities for learners within a safe environment.

Planning for outdoor learning
Planning for outdoor learning

Inclusive Playgrounds and the natural environment

Inclusive education is incorporated into the curriculum which is the practice of fully integrating all learners into classroom instruction regardless of race, gender, religion, socioeconomic status, ethnicity, physical or mental ability, or language. By the same token, outdoor environments should be inclusive as well so that children are recognised as unique, have different needs and abilities. Playgrounds that are only designed with certain ability levels in mind can exclude many primary school pupils who have the same desire and need to play and participate (The Importance of Inclusive Playgrounds, 2022).

The link below provides examples of How to Plan, Design and Build Inclusive Playgrounds to promote play.

Under-resourced primary schools and the effect on outdoor learning

According to Maffea (2020:2), school is a place where children spend a vast amount of hours a day in different classrooms expecting to learn new ideas and topics. All over the world, classrooms are not supplied with sufficient resources. Areas with high poverty rates are typically the areas where the schools are struggling the most. The schools in high poverty areas are clambering to find resources. The lack of resources affects the learners in different ways. It means they are not getting the most out of their education. In terms of resources, one could say that this dystopian environment could be extremely difficult for teachers and learners. Despite this disadvantage, teachers can be creative and with assistance from the parents and community, can make cost-effective items by using recyclable materials that can be used for the outdoor play area.

The link below provides examples of how tyres can be reused in outdoor play spaces to create an inviting environment for learners.

The Role of Gardner’s Multiple Intelligences on Outdoor Play

Maxon (2021), eloquently and succinctly states that it becomes the role of educators to go beyond the walls of the classroom or sports field and take primary school pupils outside to experience authentic and meaningful learning in real world settings. Equally important, by incorporating Gardner’s Multiple Intelligences, it provides golden opportunities for purposeful learning as children need to engage in the world within them and around them by providing them with dynamic outdoor experiences.

The following outdoor activity is designed to promote children’s multiple intelligences which can be used to adapt activities for the children.

Make a Bird Feeder (Adapted from McFarland & Adhikary (2006: 31).

  1. Locate a shaded area on the playground and gather learners to sit in a circle.
  2. Read a story about ‘Birds’ and as you progress with the story, enquire asking open-ended questions that lead learners to ‘bird feeders.’
  3. Use a short poem or song about birds and as you encourage movement, let learners pretend to be a bird and spread their wings and ‘fly’ to their favourite tree on the playground whilst imitating the sound of birds.
  4. When they at the tree, they now need to pretend to be ‘bird feeder’ and sway gently forwards and backwards to ensure that the bird feeder is sturdy even during a gentle breeze.
  5. Learners can mimic the sound of the breeze and they fly back to the circle and thereafter draw what they imagine their ‘bird feeder’ will look like. This can be done in pairs of groups to foster communication, collaboration and dialogue.
  6. Next learners can make the bird feeder with the recycled materials provided by you thus following an inclusive approach as no items need to be purchased.

Examining the activity with a focus on each of the intelligences:

Bodily-kinesthetic: Learners pretend to be a bird and spread their wings and ‘fly’ to their favourite tree on the playground. When at the tree, they now need to pretend to be ‘bird feeder’ and sway gently forwards and backwards to ensure that the bird feeder is sturdy even during a gentle breeze.

Linguistic: Ask children to dictate words that describe the bird feeder.

Logical-mathematical: Investigate the size of the bird feeder with a variety of measuring tools example, non-standard units of measurement.

Spatial: Learners can create what they imagine their ‘bird feeder’ will look like using playdough, paint, or pencil drawing.

Musical: Learners mimic the sound of the birds as they fly to and from the tree and the sound of the breeze as they fly back to the circle.

Naturalist: Encourage children to look for birds (identify) and birdfeeders on the playground. Provide identification books and other resource materials. Encourage children to make a list of the birds they have identified by drawing or writing.

Interpersonal: Engage in a discussion about how the bird would feel if it had to share the food in the bird feeder with another bird.

Intrapersonal: Have a conversation about how a bird feels as the bird is flying towards the bird feeder, when at the feeder, when the bird leaves and if there was no food in the feeder how would the bird feel.


Moving Outdoor Learning forward in your school

“Everybody is a genius. But if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will live its whole life believing that it is stupid." - Albert Einstein. This quote places ‘Gardner’s Multiple Intelligences’ into perspective as Maxon (2021), expounds that we must learn to celebrate the full diversity of human intelligence and cultivate all eight types of 'smarts' in education outcomes as we support children to feel valued and reach their maximum potential. One of the best ways to complete the missing pieces of the puzzle is through meaningful and authentic outdoor investigative and exploratory learning. We can then adopt heuristic methods of teaching and learning where learners become part of the conversation and not only recipients of information.

To conclude, Moore and Wong, (n.d) movingly state that “Without continuous hands-on experience, it is impossible for children to acquire a deep, intuitive understanding of the natural world that is the foundation of sustainable development”. The authors make a valid point as children go through metamorphosis throughout the different stages of their life. To quote Richard Bach, ‘What the caterpillar calls the end of the world, the master calls a butterfly’.


Outdoor Learning References

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Anderson-McNamee, J.K., & Bailey, S.J. 2010. ‘The Importance of Play in Early Childhood Development’. In Montana State University Extension. MT201003HR New 4/10

Bento, G., & Dias, G. 2017. The importance of outdoor play for young children's healthy development. Porto biomedical journal, 2(5), 157–160. [online] Available at

Foundation Education. 2018. How can I support the Holistic Development of Children? [online]

Friedman, S., Imrie, S., Fink. E., Gedikoglu, M., & Hughes, C. 2022. ‘Understanding changes to children's connection to nature during the COVID-19 pandemic and implications for child well-being’. People and Nature. British Ecological Society. Volume 4, Issue1.pp 155-16. [online] Available at:

Hobbs, A. & Bernard, R. 2021. Impact of COVID-19 on Early Childhood Education and Care. In UK Parliament Post. [online] Available at:

Hooven, H. (2017). Outdoor learning in early childhood (Master's thesis, Northwestern College, Orange City, IA). [online] Available at: 

MacDonald, K., Breunig, M., (2018). Back to the Garten: Ontario kindergarteners learn and grow through schoolyard pedagogy. Journal of Outdoor and Environmental Education. [online]. Available at:

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WHAT IS OUR GARDEN FOR? n.d. [online] Available at:

Wyver S. 2019. The Influence of Outdoor Play on Social and Cognitive Development. In: Tremblay RE, Boivin M, Peters RDeV, eds. Brussoni M, topic ed. Encyclopedia on Early Childhood Development [online].

Zarco, M. n.d. The Formal, Informal and Hidden Curriculum. [online] Available at: review/XRy7uCAeEeWKeQ6ae81EbQ/95c063752e9924d553575033b30427a3/Curriculum-Week-2.pdf