In today’s fast-paced world, where screen time, online games and social media fill up most of kids’ days, it can feel difficult to get them excited to be outside.
As an outdoor educator, it’s hard to see kids missing out on key nature-based experiences that were a highlight in many of our childhoods. I remember spending much of my free time playing and learning outside with my sister. We’d explore the colourful leaves, watch birds and make wishes with dandelion seeds.
This time spent outdoors is not only enjoyable, but an important part of healthy childhood development. Studies are showing that getting outside each day makes kids happier, improves physical health and helps kids grow in empathy and confidence.
But how can parents and teachers go about increasing outdoor learning time? Here are five ways you can get started today.
1. Be prepared
Whether it’s your schoolyard, local beach or a neighbourhood park, amazing outdoor classrooms can exist all around you. First you should get to know the space that you have chosen to spend time in. For example, what beings call this place home? Whose territory are you visiting? Are there any health and safety considerations?
A second step is making sure that you and the kids are dressed appropriately for being outside. Do you need warm layers? Do you need a raincoat?
2. Be a good visitor
It’s important to enter these spaces with respect. Outdoor classrooms are home to many different species of plants and animals. As a good visitor, learners of all ages should aim to leave this space better than how you found it. That could include picking up garbage in the area, making sure that you leave no trace behind or even looking into planting a pollinator garden.
Another way you can be a good visitor is to be considerate of all the voices of this place. This includes the voices of local Indigenous knowledge and other members of your broader human community. And we can’t forget our non-human neighbours like plants, animals, water and the land. While there’s no one way to do this, it could look like learning the Indigenous names of plants in your neighbourhood and the important roles they play in the ecosystem.
3. Embrace the seasons
Spending time outdoors can be easier to imagine on a warm, sunny, late-spring day but what about on those days when it’s dark, cold and rainy or snowy? Exploring in all four seasons is a great opportunity for kids to foster their own awareness and notice all the changes, big or small, happening just outside their doors throughout the year. For example, in the winter you could focus on the migrating sea lions, or watch the flowers change from spring to summer. There are so many gifts each season provides if you take the time to visit.
4. Engage all the senses
Incorporating sensory elements can take your learning to the next level! Local outdoor classrooms can be amazing spaces to facilitate this. Sensory learning can support curiosity, creativity, critical thinking and problem-solving. It also holds many cognitive benefits like motor skills and language development. Here are some ideas: you can smell the cool sea breeze, feel the texture of Douglas Fir cones between your fingers, listen to the songs of birds or taste the maple blossoms. If you are going to engage with your senses outdoors, please make sure that you are doing so in a way that is responsible and respectful.
5. Find teachable moments
One of the many gifts that a local outdoor classroom can offer you is unpredictability! You never know what surprise awaits you—an eagle could fly overhead, a caterpillar could crawl by or water could suddenly come raining down from the clouds. These moments of surprise can serve as great learning opportunities. Plus, embracing these spontaneous experiences can create long-lasting memories and lessons.
Nature is truly an incredible teacher, home and friend. And with a bit of creativity, the outdoors can battle the pull of screen time. I hope these suggestions spark some wonderful adventures for the kids in your life.