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In the Outdoors: A Guide to Exploring Social and Emotional Learning through Outdoor Play

Outdoor play can be the greatest vessel for exploration. Let's dive-in together to discover how we can use outdoor play as tool for child-led learning.

In the Second of our In the Outdoors series we will explore how outdoor play can be a vessel to develop key social and emotional skills. Whether you are an early childhood educator, a stay at home parent, or a homeschool family, you will find new ways to get inspired and incorporate many new social and emotional skills into your time outdoors.

Bravery, confidence, resilience, and connection are just some of the most prevalent concepts of social emotional learning that can be found in outdoor play. Open ended outdoor exploration offers natural opportunities for deep exploration of a large variety of social and emotional skills. Natural environments often offer the flexibility to enter challenges at a variety of ability levels, they allow physical space to work through social challenges, and they provide endless opportunity for team work and collaboration. To top it all off natural environments provide regulation to our nervous systems that allow us to approach these skills from a more grounded and calm position.

Let's explore how the outdoors fosters skills for connecting with others, skills for developing personal mental strength, and how natural environments provide regulating opportunities to best set up children to learn these skills.

How Natural Environments Provide Regulating Opportunities.

Have you ever heard the parenting advice " if your baby is fussy, take them outside or put them in water" The reason this parenting adage has stood the test of time is that it has some serious truth behind it. These natural environments provide naturally regulating opportunities. When we go outside, even for just 20 minutes, our heart rates drops, we produce more serotonin, and we are generally calmer. Water has very similar effects that have been linked to a phenomenon called the mammalian diving response, which has been linked to lowered heart rates in all mammals when their face was exposed to water. Knowing that these environments can cause physiological changes that help calm and regulate our bodies, and that humans learn best when in a regulated state we can deduce that the outdoors provides a more ideal environment for learning, especially learning difficult and complex things such as social emotional skills.


Developing Mental Strength

In the opening of this article we talked about bravery, confidence, and resilience. All important skills many of us wish to see in the next generation. How can outdoor play help us support children in learning these skills. Outdoor play can provide opportunities to children to challenge themselves through self direction. For example, tree climbing, when children climb tree's they are able to pick a tree, how high they climb, and slowly are able to challenge themselves and accomplish more and more. This builds a child's confidence! Outdoor play builds these growth mindset qualities the most when it is combined with risky play. The ability to participate in active risk taking that challenges one self considerably builds confidence.

The outdoors also offers an opportunity to learn the best ways to make the most of what people might consider less ideal conditions. How do we have fun in the rain? How can we still get fresh air in the cold? How do we make the most of a windy day? Outdoor conditions are often unpredictable, and can have undesired results... but that doesn't mean we can't learn to make the most of it. We also can learn that uncomfortable conditions come to an end, we will always get inside and warm up, rest our tired feet, or dry off from the rain. The uncomfortable feelings that come from unpredictable weather always come to an end.

Outdoor Play as a Vessel for Collaboration

The principals described above can also be fuel for developing interpersonal skills. In outdoor play and/ or risky play children learn to work as a team.

Often I have observed how outdoor play has brought children together for collaborative projects. I have watched leaders emerge as chefs in mud kitchen restaurants, and watched the complex delegation of jobs when digging holes to create worm homes. Most often we see these moments of collaboration through extended periods of play in open-ended spaces. The more free time the children have to explore the space the more they begin to work together to transform the natural space into a stage for their play. Working together to haul big logs needed for a fort, and digging holes or moving rocks to make a campfire. These moments allow children to collaborate in ways that aren't often available in indoor spaces, where heavy work, and resources don't exist in the same ways.

Want to discover more about learning through outdoor play? Join us at one of our programs, or stay tuned for a full length guide on learning through outdoor play. Filled with easy activities to support play and learning in the great outdoors.

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