The Power of the Outdoors

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How being in nature can help prepare our children for the school year ahead.

Children sat outdoors

By Victoria Saunders, Lecturer in Primary Teacher Education
School of Education, University of Birmingham

We have made it to the 6 weeks summer holidays and that is an achievement in itself this year. The past two years have been without doubt the most challenging, unsettling and worrying time for most people around the world including our children. And as the country is starting to get back to some kind of normality it is important that we think about the impact that the past 17 months or more may have had on our youngest.

“This global pandemic has brought challenges, disruption and uncertainty to many lives and has impacted not only our physical health, but our mental health and wellbeing too.” Nadine Dorries – Minister for Mental Health and Suicide Prevention

Physical health, mental health and wellbeing can all be improved by spending time enjoying the outdoors. Children have lost a lot of learning time this year and teachers are working extremely hard to ensure children still continue to make the required progress and meet expectations but one factor that will support this is pupil confidence. A number of parents and children are concerned about ‘lost learning’ when in fact we should be thinking about how we can build children’s confidence, celebrate their successes and give them the determination to have ‘a go’ at things and to believe in themselves that they can achieve and be successful.  Giving children the opportunity to spend more time outdoors gives them that open space, where they can express themselves, there are less boundaries and more opportunities for risk taking and overcoming challenges.

If there was one good thing to have come out of this global pandemic it was the fact that families seemed to spend more time outdoors and I hope this is something which will continue. When everything and everywhere was closed there was nothing better to do than to get outside and go for a nice long walk, cycle ride or even just spend time in the garden.  However with the reopening of soft play, cinemas and shopping centres I think it is important that people are aware of how spending time outdoors, exploring, playing and interacting with family and friends can have a huge impact on children’s wellbeing, health, self- esteem and confidence and in turn lead to a positive impact academically.

Lockdown, school closures, isolation these have all had a huge impact on our children, the uncertainty, lack of routine, loss of social interaction and lack of control. Getting children outdoors during the summer will help to build their confidence, an opportunity for them to take control, make decisions and solve problems. If you think of a simple game, such as hide and seek, playing this game outside rather than indoors creates whole new opportunities. Firstly they have much more space, more places to hide, more risky places to hide. They have to make decisions about what area of space to use, which places are safe to hide in, how long to count in order to give someone a chance to get to a hiding place. Making these simple decisions gives children the opportunity to take control, it helps to build their confidence. 

Children tend to ask more questions when they are outdoors as Louv (2005) states nature creates a unique sense of wonder for children that no other environment can provide. Children are also encouraged to build a sense of caring about the earth and the need to act responsibly towards it. Simple conversations about not picking flowers but admiring and looking after them instead. It feels like I am constantly talking about snails, slugs, lady birds and any other creature my daughter can find when she is outdoors. We have to spend ages studying them and then trying to find things which they would like in their “habitat” such as “soft leaves for their bed, and some rocks so they can climb on them for exercise.”  Not only is this developing their general knowledge of nature and different environments but it helps young children develop their nurturing side, an understanding that it is important to look after others and to be kind and considerate.

Developing children’s self-esteem and confidence is so important because research shows that children who feel good about themselves have the confidence to try new things. They are more likely to try their best. They feel proud of what they can do. Self-esteem helps children cope when they make mistakes, and it gives them the confidence to try again until they succeed.

So when we think about children returning to school in September and the conversations around how they are going to catch up on lost learning and make accelerated progress in order to enable them to meet expected standards it is important that we have given them the best start during the summer holidays and that we are preparing them by helping them to be resilient and ready to have a go and keep trying because they believe they will be successful. Getting children outdoors this summer is a key way to prepare our children for their return to school. Not only because being outdoors is fun and exciting but it opens up a huge opportunities to develop the whole child which cannot be achieved by sitting in front of the television or playing on their computer all day. Explore the power of the outdoors and the opportunity to develop strong, healthy, confident and resilient children.

When The Exchange officially opens its doors from September, look out for Victoria’s event on outdoor learning tailored for parents. Full details available in due course.

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