Connecting with the outdoor space in the Early Years

Jo Peters

Jo Peters – Assistant Head of Hub Bright Futures Northwest Early Years Stronger Practice Hub

As a former Reception teacher and Early Years Assistant Head, I have always been influenced by childhood pioneers and alternative practices such as Reggio Emelia and Froebel education. Over the last 30 years I have had the privilege to work with children and families in a variety of settings and schools. In my current role as Assistant Head of The Early Years Stronger Practice Hub, I am fortunate to meet and network with inspiring childminders, practitioners, teachers and leaders. In this blog I will share an insight into the benefits of being in the outdoors. I have always been an advocate of spending time in the natural environment, with no other agenda than the feeling of connection and joy that it brings. Getting your big coat on and embracing the rain with children is one of the most enjoyable authentic experiences. Here are some of my favourite memories of the outdoors which allowed me to create some truly unique play experiences.

Why is it important to connect with the outdoors?

There are multiple benefits of outdoor learning, especially for those children who find it difficult to focus in a more traditional learning environment (sitting on a carpet or at a table.) Outdoor learning is vital for:

  • Good Mental Health and Wellbeing
  • Physical Development
  • Communication and Language
  • Cognitive Development
  • Early Language Development

When children enter the Early Years, the setting’s environment is an extension of home, a space to feel safe, relaxed and a place to experience awe, wonder and creativity. Some children will naturally gravitate towards the outdoor environment but not all children enjoy outdoor learning. Some children struggle with the transition from indoors to outdoors and this may be overwhelming. For children who have difficulty with transition to the outdoor space, using a visual now and next board helps. This will allow children to understand what is expected of him or her. Children who can anticipate what to expect next will have an easier time self-regulating. Children may need nurturing from a sensitive adult to connect with the space as not all children have pleasant experiences of the outdoors. When supporting children outside the role of the adult is crucial. It is important to build strong relationships, support children, notice their interests, and build on child-initiated ideas. Children’s fascination will lead us to identify resources that could be enhanced outside to draw children to step outdoors and engage in learning.

The Lazy River – Collecting rainwater in the water butt

Supporting self-regulation

What is it?

Self-regulatory skills can be defined as the ability of children to manage their own behaviour and aspects of their learning. In the early years, efforts to develop self-regulation often seek to improve levels of self-control and reduce impulsivity. These skills are also sometimes described as executive function capability. Self-regulation strategies can overlap with social and emotional learning strategies and behaviour interventions. The Early Years Foundation Stage framework includes early learning goals in Personal, Social Development. Education Endowment Foundation | EEF

Often, I find it easier to observe children’s current self-regulation capabilities when they are playing outdoors and with peers. Children have more freedom and time; they also can explore the space around them.

The GATHERING TREE inspired by Julia Robertson (2014)

During Springtime this beautiful blossom tree was our gathering tree. It was central to the playground and became a space to come together and engage in mindfulness activity as well as somewhere we could model the outdoor experiences on offer. One of the calmest and relaxing activities to support self-regulation was sitting around the blossom tree engaged in observation drawing and painting. Children could access their sketch books freely with a variety of Art resources. Practitioners ensured the timetable provided time and space to practice their Art skills or doodle, draw and make marks. Children learnt to recognise this space as a safe, secure, and slow-paced place to be. It was an ideal space for staff to support children in exploring and developing strategies to regulate their emotions. As well as engaging in calming activities that were on offer, we found just being in this space had a calming effect on children.

Supporting communication and language – taking reading outside

The Reading Hobbit

The magical Hobbit Den was the reading nook. The purpose of the Hobbit was to provide a cozy nook to snuggle up with a book and a space for children to create their own stories. This was a space where children would engage in conversation and build a narrative using small world characters to create stories. During summertime, we would sit by the Hobbit watching our performers on the outdoor stage singing and creating their own dance routines. There is always plenty to notice outdoors, such as the changes in seasons and weather and seasons. Engaging with the natural world offers opportunities to develop children’s vocabulary, listening and attention skills. The most engaging outdoor environments have a natural landscape, are open-ended and are physically challenging, allowing children opportunities to explore their curiosities and develop their independence.

Let’s get physical! 

Tree climbing, den making, and woodwork were the most popular in our outdoor woodwork area. These activities offered the children lots of opportunities to develop their fine motor, gross motor skills and problem solving. When den building children would handle large equipment, ties and connecting resources. The woodwork would involve them using palm drills, nails, and loose parts. Effective modelling and the characteristics of effective learning were embedded in the learning experiences planned for the children.

The Early Years Foundation Stage (2021) provides a summary of the physical development.

  • Core strength is children’s ability to maintain their position and move from the centre of their body outwards.
  • Co-ordination is the brain’s ability to control different body part movements at the same time.
  • Children’s early years are important to sensory and physical development.
  • Children’s core strength and co-ordination are essential to developing their ability to move in different ways, control their movements as well as fine motor control.
  • Developing children’s core strength and coordination means they can be more agile, flexible, well-coordinated, balanced and motivated to take part in physical activity.

How do we ensure we are not missing opportunities?

What about beyond the resources we have on offer, how are we noticing and planning effectively to ensure children’s skills, interests and fascinations are valued?

If children want to pursue another direction in their play, then the adult must try not to interfere which Julie Fisher advocates (2013) in her book, Interacting or Interfering. As the season’s passed we experienced flowers bearing apples, the boys were excited each time the apples fell to the floor. They would sort the bad apples from the good, compare quantities and use mathematical language. Children initiated a shop and set up stalls to sell their apples, creating a writing opportunity to label and design. We used floor books and a large whiteboard to document children’s schematic play; this helped the team to value children’s fascinations. Through this child centred approach and nurturing a pedagogy of listening and noticing, children in the Early Years thrived as unique happy capable learners.

How does this fit in with the Statutory Framework’s overarching principles?

  • Every child is unique and can be resilient, capable, confident, and self-assured. The characteristics of effective learning, “engagement,” “active learning,” and “creative and critical thinking” describe the behaviours children use to learn effectively. These attitudes and abilities make children strong, capable, and resilient, enabling them to make good progress in all the areas of learning.
  • Children learn and develop well in enabling environments with teaching and support from adults who respond to their individual interests and needs.

Importance of learning and development, and the characteristics of effective learning. The learning and development requirements define what providers must do, working in partnership with parents/carers, to promote learning in all children in their care.


Early Years Evidence Store | EEF (

Early years foundation stage (EYFS) statutory framework – GOV.UK (

Juliet Robertson (2014) Dirty Teaching  

Julie Fisher (2014) Interacting or Interfering

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