The Early Years Outdoors

Picture of Calum


International Primary Teacher and Outdoor Learning Specialist, with over ten years experience. I hold an MSc in Outdoor Education and PGDE in Primary Education.

In this blog, we will explore the crucial role that outdoor learning plays in children’s development during the Early years foundation stage (EYFS) (up to the age of 5 in the UK). We’ll delve into the advantages of outdoor learning activities, from improving motor skills to encouraging imaginative play and promoting overall wellbeing. The blog will also provide some creative ideas and pedagogical strategies for engaging young learners outdoors and discuss the resources and equipment that could be used to support children’s learning.

EYFS learners sequencing story stones.


Embracing the early years outdoors

Many books already exist that go into enormous detail regarding the perks of embracing a child’s early years and exposing them to activities that allow them to learn through exploration, imagination and play. Children have an incredible potential for learning right from birth because rapid growth occurs during these years. The foundations for later sensory, motor, cognitive, physical, language and social-emotional development are laid permanently (Schakel, 1988). EYSF outdoor activities take the lead in providing a platform for the enhancement of these skills. Some notable positive outcomes for a child exposed to outdoor activities include greater self-confidence, interest in natural surroundings, better ability to work cooperatively with others &and more sophisticated uses of spoken and written language. Of course, developed physical stamina and gross and fine motor skills are among the many benefits (Sutapa et al., 2021).

Finding special stones and keeping them in a magic nature box.


Playing in outdoor environments

Knight (2013) states, ‘Play allows children to understand the qualities and properties of the world’ (p. 98). By playing in an authentic outdoor environment, children can play with materials and observe the features of the landscapes around them. As children initially learn heavily through using their senses, discovering and playing in outdoor environments offers children rich sensory learning experiences (Duffy, 2007). When playing, children also inhabit their environment and make it their own.

Outdoor environments aid the students’ physical development during sessions. They can contain uneven and variable terrain that helps to develop the students’ balance and physical fitness (Fjortoft, 2004). This, combined with well-thought-out play equipment, can encourage the development of fine and gross motor skills and help an individual’s physical development and wellbeing (Blackwell, 2015).

For more information on the importance of outdoor play for children, please read the following blog.


The Importance of Outdoor Play


learning outdoors and wellbeing of early years learners

The outdoors is a powerful tool for developing a child’s social and emotional wellbeing. When partaking in outdoor learning activities, children demonstrate their feelings and inner needs, develop their sense of who they are, solve problems, and deal with conflicts. Outdoor play, working with natural resources, and outdoor learning activities all help build learners’ social and communication skills. (Santer and Griffith, 2007). Additionally, being outdoors allows children in their early years to switch off from the busyness around them and offers the chance to be at peace. (Berger and Tiry, 2012).

Please read my previous blog for more information how outdoor learning can benefit children’s wellbeing.


Developing the Wellbeing of Children Through Outdoor Learning


Designing an outdoor learning environment

When designing an outdoor learning environment, it is important to note that schools must work within their unique contextual and environmental constraints. Not all schools have access to forests; however, using effective equipment can improve the natural environment and facilitate children’s imaginations in even the most basic outdoor spaces (Coleman, M. 2016).

Here are some examples of playground equipment that, in my experience, have been effective in my urban work contexts.

Planting boxes are always at the top of my list as they provide planting projects, improve the learning environment, and attract nature to the playground.


Planks of wood and crates allow children to construct different structures and develop their gross motor skills. They can also use the planks to develop their balance.


Old gardening pots have been a surprise hit with the EYFS learners. I have seen them used for various purposes, such as mud play, stacking games, and building insect hotels.


Creating a well-organised trolley allows teachers and teaching assistants (TAs) easy access to the resources and allows the EYFS children to tidy up independently.


Equipment that allows children to experiment with momentum is super popular and educational.


Proving children with cloth and pegs allows them to build dens and create quiet spots in the playground.


Having areas where children can draw or write in the playground is always well-used by the EYFS children.


A well-stocked outdoor cupboard with old pots, pans, and soil brings the mud kitchen area to life. Mud activities are often popular with EYFS learners.



Natural materials like mud can help children of all ages connect with the lesson in many ways. By touching, feeling, and smelling, children can engage their senses and generate questions about the environment around them while learning. Using natural materials such as mud helps stimulate children’s senses. Most children are more interested in utilising their senses to explore what they see (Edgington, 1998). Sensory-rich outdoor activities like playing with mud can cater to diverse learning styles and nurture each individual’s connection to the curriculum. Let’s not forget: MUD is also super fun!

Recently, I facilitated a Big School Mud Bake Off! with an Early Years class. The skills I developed included understanding instructional texts, counting skills, and working in a team.
With three delicious mud recipes to choose from, the learners worked together to collect natural ingredients from the local park and made their mud creations.

EYFS  learner cooks different mud kitchen recipes.


An EYFS learner chose not to use the mud kitchen but instead used their imagination to build an insect hotel using gardening tools.


Learning linked to stories and characters

Starting the lesson with a story or introducing an animal character, such as a stuffed hedgehog or duck toy, ignites EYFS children’s curiosity, gives their exploration a clear purpose, and helps them connect with the tasks.

For example, I recently conducted a lesson on hedgehogs. I started the lesson by reading “The Very Helpful Hedgehog’ by Rosie Wellesley. I then introduced the my hedgehog character a cute stuffed hedgehog toy called Hamish to the children. This sparked a discussion about hedgehogs, and they shared their knowledge and experiences with them. Afterwards, the children made a giant leaf pile in the playground for Hamish to sleep in, and then they made hedgehog models out of clay and sticks.

Introducing our Hedgehog project and inroducing Hamish the Hedgehog to the EYFS learners.


EYFS learners are building leaf piles for the hedgehog to sleep in.


Finally, clay hedgehogs were built using sticks and clay. Linking outdoor and classroom activities.


Collaborative outdoor projects between ks2 and early years

I often find it inspiring to see how the older and younger children work together on joint projects. Collaborating on joint projects allows them to learn so much from each other, and it’s heartwarming to see the bonds formed through these experiences. Story Stones is one of my favourite collaborative projects.

Children in ks2 are given four popular stories to choose from and then asked to paint the eight most essential parts of the story onto rocks. These rocks were then hidden in the playground, and it was up to the EYFS children to find them and put them in the correct sequence, while retelling the story with their ks2 buddies.

KS2 learners help their Early Years buddies to order and retell the story of the ‘The Three Billy Goats Gruff’  using story stones they painted with acrylic paint pens.


Other effective collaborative projects include bug hunts and building projects such as building a ladybug hotel.

Collaborative early years, ks2 ladybug hotel project


Big and small hands work together to find ladybugs in the playground for their hotel.


A few of my favourite outdoor activities for early years

Think back to your early childhood years, how you spent your free time with friends exploring different games and even learning specific skills such as rope jumping and building castles. Your curiosity and vibrancy during these years were at the roof, having the opportunity to learn much faster and spending much of that time outdoors. Today, children barely have creative outdoor experience (Clements, R. 2004). They are cautioned to keep off the sand. This interferes with a child’s natural desire to learn and discover. It is important to emphasise outdoor learning activities in the early years as they heighten their senses and awaken their innate creativity (Honig, A. 2019).

Here are some of my favourite early years outdoor activities.

The EYFS learners count the number of dots on the task card and use the picture reference to help them find where to add their answers.


Stone painting is always a fun activity to do outside. The stones in the picture are ladybug addition stones. The number sentence on the back of the stone corresponds to the number of spots painted by the learner.


Planting outside is always a fantastic opportunity for early years children to learn about plants, nature, and where food comes from.


Matchbox scavenger hunts are always a favourite. The children get hands-on with many different natural materials while also having to consider the size and shape of objects.


Building projects such as making bird nests allows children in their early years to develop problem-solving and collaboration skills while learning about the animal for which they are building a home. Seeing their amazing imagination when describing all their construction elements is always amazing.


Unintended outcomes

I often find that some of the best learning comes from the intended outcomes. Learning is discovered by the children rather than planned by the teacher.

An early years learner approached me in the playground with a rock that he found fascinating.

Potential learning from this rock could include:

Maths – Patterns and Shape.

Senses – Rough and Smooth.

How did the rock get here?

Why are there white stripes on one side of the rock?

How was it created?


A chance to engage in an imaginative conversation with a creative young mind.


Kelly (2009) believed that when facilitating learning, there should be a balance between the intended, planned, and lived curriculum. A curriculum outcome may not have to be the catalyst for the learning experience. Therefore, a teacher must be on hand and ready to engage fully in spontaneous discussions with the learners.


Open questions

As a teacher, I am often in awe of witnessing the early years specialist teachers and TAs’ questioning and age-appropriate communication skills. Opening up the children’s learning during discovery and play is the most impressive sequence of open questioning. It is important to understand how to talk to young children at a level they understand and develop a knowledge of the individuals you teach.

EYFS learners are having fun with their outdoor drawing project.


Class management outdoors

Often, teachers who keep the boundaries of the lesson more open (Glackin, 2016) and incorporate time for children to explore and discover during the study find notable success with outdoor learning (Mannion et al., 2013). However, as with classroom learning, children respond well when they clearly understand the expectations.

It can be challenging for children who don’t have experience working outdoors to know how they can get the most from the learning experience and stay safe. This is why I always share my expectations with the children before lessons, and I have different ways to do this, including presentation slides and circle time. However, I have found that the most effective strategies are the ones that give the learners an active role in setting and demonstrating expectations. These days, I like to use different scenario cards where the children must act out or create freeze frames of situations they may encounter when learning outside. I often refer to the Instagram account Good Morning Ms Foster to find creative and effective ways to manage class behaviour that can easily be transferred to outdoor contexts.

It can also be challenging to get learners’ attention when working outdoors. However, I’ve found that using a fun way to get their attention often works well. For example, I use a duck whistle or a wolf howl as an attention grabber.


Valuable resources for class management outdoors.


Let us know your experiences with taking early years learning outdoors. What was the response you received from your learners? Please email me:



Blackwell, S. (2015). Long-term forest school programmes impact children, confidence and wewellbeing30(04), 1-46.

Berger, R. and Tiry, M. (2012). The enchanting forest and the healing sand—Nature therapy with people coping with psychiatric difficulties. The Arts in Psychotherapy, 39(5), 412–416.

Clements, R. (2004). An Investigation of the Status of Outdoor Play. Contemporary Issues in Early Childhood, 5, 68 – 80.

Coleman, M. (2016). Recognising young children with high potential: U‐STARS∼PLUS. Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences, 1377.

Duffy, B. (2007). All about… messy play. United Kingdom: Crown.

Edgington, M. (1998). Developing a sense of place. 1998, 3-3.

Fjortoft, I. (2004). Landscape as playscape: The effects of natural environments on children and motor development. Child Youth Environments, 14(2), 21–44.

Glackin, M. (2016). ‘Risky fun’ or ‘Authentic science’? How teachers’ beliefs influence their practice during a professional development programme on outdoor learning. International Journal of Science Education, 38(3), 409–433.

Honig, A. (2019). Outdoors in nature: unique spaces for young children’s learning. Early Child Development and Care, 189, 659 – 669.

Knight, S. (2013). Forest school and outdoor learning in the early years. Sage.

Mannion, G., Fenwick, A., & Lynch, J. (2013). Place-responsive pedagogy: learning from teachers’ experiences of excursions in nature. Environmental Education Research, 19(6), 792–809.

Santer, J. and Griffiths, C. (2007). Free play in early childhood: A literature review. National ChChildren’sureau.

Schakel, J. (1988). Providing Services to Preschool-aged Children. School Psychology International, 9, 163 – 173. 

Sutapa P, Pratama KW, Rosly MM, Ali SKS, Karakauki M. Improving Motor Skills in Early Childhood through Goal-Oriented Play Activity. Children (Basel). 2021 Nov 2;8(11):994.