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In the Outdoors: A Guide to Exploring Literacy 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 first of our In the Outdoors series we will explore how to playfully integrate literacy materials and activities into your outdoor time. 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 literacy skills into your time outdoors.

As an early childhood educator myself, I know children learn best through play and there is no better setting for play than the great outdoors. Often times in forest school settings, or an outdoor play program we get asked, "What will they learn if they just play outside all day?" While I could write an entire blog post on this question alone, I want to turn it around and reframe it. What won't children learn playing outside? Play is the ultimate learning and offering unstructured play for children has many proven benefits. As parents, educators, and caregivers it can be difficult to comprehend the value of play. I seek to challenge that, and this series invites you to the same. As caregivers let us examine and observe how specific types of learning can be facilitated through play. In this guided series I will share all the tips, tricks and inspiration I have found over my years teaching nature-based education programs.

First up is the exploration of literacy in the outdoors, how can we support children to discover early literacy concepts through outdoor play and time in nature!

Exploring Literacy Through Outdoor Play

Literacy in the great outdoors is much simpler than we might assume. We are throwing out letter of the day, spelling tests, and literacy worksheets in favour of play based, real-life explorations of literacy concepts. These tips and tricks are geared toward children 10 and under and don't substitute formal language learning but seek to enhance it. These are supporting tactics for engaging young learners in their desire and curiosity for reading.

Literacy Materials For Nature Lovers

Reading and Writing as Communication/ Learning Tools

Playful Literacy


Literacy Materials for Nature Lovers

When exploring nature there are so many opportunities for you to casually and naturally incorporate reading into your day to day. From cozying up under a tree with a blanket and a read aloud book, to using nature guide books, and even survival skill books. So much of what we can learn about the natural world around us can be learnt through reading. We also can make our own literacy materials that support whatever types of play your child is interested in. I have met very few groups of children that weren't at some point engaged in making a map, creating a menu for their mud kitchen, or documenting the animal tracks they could find on a nature walk. Even a simple nature

scavenger hunt that pairs simple words with pictures supports our understanding of reading. Simply introducing materials that have words, letters, and pictures provides opportunities to explore early literacy concepts while we play.

The practice of incorporating literacy materials into your every day outdoor play adventures also support children in developing intrinsic motivation to read. Children are naturally curious especially about the world and the world around them. We can foster this through providing and modelling how reading is a tool to answering the burning questions they have about their favourite topic.

Here are two activities to try outside...

Literacy In Nature
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Reading and Writing as Communication and Learning Tools

Just like we explored above, children are motivated to learn by topics and categories that engage and interest them. Organically introducing literacy concepts makes them meaningful and intentional. Reading and writing are tools we can use to explore the natural world. Not just through nature guides, non-fiction books, or stories about nature but also through everyday real life examples. Reading and writing is communication tool, we can explore it in the outdoors as we would a hammer, a hand drill, or a knife.

We have used reading as tool to learn about things we have encountered in play by modelling. When I don't know what something is, or how something works, or how to do something... I read about it. I may pull out a book or my phone and look up and then read aloud, muse the answers and use the information to solve my question or try a different approach. I use reading as a tool and often invite children to do the same when they have a curiosity. For example: a child who wants to build a shelter for a game they are playing, may use the pictures and reading of a book on nature shelters to discover the best method for this. Or use a knot guide to find the right knot for their previously established idea. We use writing as a tool in the same way, we mark our names to stake our claim to our art, we write messages and cards to show thanks and gratitude, and communicate to each other, we write stories about our adventures and document our thoughts in journals. Children's natural desire to participate and use these tools will grow the more we model using these tools. Integrating literacy in outdoor play this way gives the tasks of reading and writing intention. Children begin to understand the why behind these skills.

Some examples of how we have used literacy tools in our program each and every day are...

  • creating signs for places that matter / things we create / to inform others of what we are doing

  • reading maps / guide books / apps to discover what plants and animals are around us

  • writing notes to each other

  • writing menu's / cookbooks / taking orders in mud kitchen

  • documenting the children's ideas for program planning

  • writing cards to each other

  • reading cards from friends or stories others have written

Playful Literacy

Lastly we incorporate literacy in the outdoors by being playful and open-ended. We have materials that promote literacy that we play with outside, we have mark making supplies available at all times to add to the children's play. We have books to read, and stories to tell! Providing materials that support literacy learning is the number one way to support literacy outside... so here is a list of 10 materials you could add to your outdoor space or backpack to provide opportunities for literacy learning in the great outdoors:

  1. Knot making / shelter building instructions

  2. A chalk board

  3. Clipboards / pens / pencils / paper

  4. Paint brushes and water colours

  5. Nature guide books

  6. Letter based loose parts (scrabble tiles, wooden letters, wood cookies with letters)

  7. Safety guides for using tools / other materials

  8. Story cubes / Story rocks

  9. Puppets / Stuffed animals

  10. BOOKS!!

Playing outdoors is a great opportunity to practice literacy concepts from story telling, to instruction reading, sign making and more. In the outdoors we can find endless practical applications that are meaningful and engaging for the children. In these moments we cement children's intrinsic motivation to learn literacy skills by modelling real life moments to practice them together.

Want to discover more about learning through outdoor play? Join us at one of our playgroups, 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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