An increased focus on outdoors: Could the pandemic create positive impacts on physical activity and the health and well-being of children?
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An increased focus on outdoors: Could the pandemic create positive impacts on physical activity and the health and well-being of children?

by Dr Michele Peden, Pedagogical Thinker in Residence, Big Fat Smile

April 06, 2022

Since the advent of the global COVID-19 pandemic, the early childhood education and care (ECEC) sector has remained operational, supporting children and families. 


COVID-19 has required the sector to implement additional practices to minimise the risk of infection transmission among children and staff, for example, educators, families, and children adjusting to changes in the design and implementation of routines and transitions, mask-wearing, and an increased focus on children and educators spending additional time outdoors.


While these changes have been challenging for children and educators, could these changes function as positive catalysts for increasing quality pedagogical practices?


Could this be a pivotal opportunity for educators to explore how future curriculum decision-making, teaching, and learning practices in outdoor learning environments can positively impact a child’s physical activity, health, and well-being?


Early Childhood is a significant period of growth across all five developmental domains: cognitive, language, physical, social and emotional.


Research in neuroscience highlights that 90 per cent of a child ‘s brain development occurs before five years. ECEC services’ outdoor learning environments are highly supportive of children’s development and can play a crucial role in a child’s physical, well-being, and health perspective through functional experiences and play.


With the increased use of outdoor learning spaces considered to be an effective COVID-19 mitigation strategy in ECEC environments, it’s an optimal time for educators to reflect and reimagine the unique learning opportunities and benefits the outdoor environment provides that are not readily available indoors.


What makes a quality outdoor learning environment? 


Quality outdoor learning environments, coupled with quality levels of engagement and interactions between children and educators, can increase physical activity levels and reduce sedentary behaviours in children. Physical activity is vital for the growth and development of children and is associated with healthy weight status, fitness, and motor development.


Research indicates that ECEC outdoor learning environments can be attributed to several factors that positively influence children’s increased physical activity opportunities, such as:


  • the availability of play equipment in the outdoor setting,
  • the size of outdoor learning spaces, and;
  • educators providing opportunities to extend children’s motor skills and fundamental movements skills through play-based learning experiences.


Many ECEC services are currently reflecting on their outdoor learning environments, inclusive of elements that have positive associations with higher levels of moderate-to-vigorous-physical-activity (MVPA).


Some of these elements include:


  • creating a balance between open and obstructed play spaces,
  • creation of pathways (promotes running, chasing, cycling),
  • increased use of portable play equipment (balls, climbing equipment, hoops, etc.),
  • decreased use or installation of fixed equipment (forts, swings, slides), and;
  • increased natural elements incorporated into the outdoor design.


The role of environments in children’s wellbeing


Past studies have also indicated positive links between the outdoor learning environment and young children’s health and well-being. The World Health Organisation describes the concept of health as complex, being a “state of complete physical, mental and social well-being and not merely the nascence of disease or infirmity”. The concept of well-being is multifaceted, and it is often associated with internal feelings of being/feeling.


Outdoors learning environments within ECEC settings have significant positive impacts on a child’s health and well-being, such as:


  • decreased anxiety/ stress and depression,
  • increased prosocial behaviours,
  • development of empathy and cooperation,
  • positive risk-taking,
  • impulse control,
  • increased levels of self-esteem, and behavioural self-regulation.


Research also indicates the calming sounds heard within an outdoor environment (trees moving in the wind, birds, water can lower stress hormones within a child’s body, calming their fight, flight, and freeze responses.


Furthermore, research findings indicate a positive link between children spending longer in outdoor learning environments and more extended night sleep patterns, children’s attachment levels, emotional adjustment, and self-regulation.


Quality outdoor learning in ECE settings has also contributed to improved positive mental health, self-regulation, and improved behaviour. Higher quality outdoor learning environments are associated with more constructive play. Natural materials and spaces for children to explore increase children’s opportunities to improve their spatial awareness, concentration, physical competence, skills, and socialisation.

Creating quality outdoor learning environments

Educators play a vital role in designing and implementing quality outdoor learning spaces that support children’s well-being and health outcomes.


Some considerations include the inclusion of gross motor features (climbing, balancing, portable equipment), gardening spaces, loose parts, natural components (grass, mud, mulch, large rocks, mounds, terraces, slopes, etc.), quiet or retreat areas for children to self-regulate, and a variety of resources and choice to increase autonomy, confidence, and a sense of agency.


Studies indicate that children’s levels of anxiety, stress, and mental fatigue can be reduced if children are afforded increased time in outdoor green spaces.


Open-ended and flexible spaces enable educators to respond to children’s socio-emotional and physical needs and interests. Furthermore, children viewing nature within outdoor learning environments reduces their physiological stress response and can decrease levels of fear, anger, or aggression.


During the height of the pandemic last year, when many families were in lockdown, research indicated that children’s physical and socio-emotional development was being impacted.


Children showed signs of stress, anxiety, boredom, under-stimulation, feelings of disconnect, and increased sedentary behaviours. With the ease of restrictions, children need to be provided with increased outdoor learning opportunities that support their socio-emotional and physical developmental needs.


Learning and development are maximised when educators critically reflect their outdoor learning curriculums and physical spaces thoughtfully to reflect children’s current interests and developmental needs.


Therefore, a continued focus on providing quality outdoor learning environments within ECEC settings is warranted. This assists in mitigating the spread of COVID-19 within ECEC services, but it will also offer a multitude of socio-emotional and physical developmental benefits for our children.


This piece has been adapted from the work of Big Fat Smile’s Pedagogical Thinker in Residence, Dr. Michele Peden, and has been shared with her permission. To access the original, with a set of references, please see here.

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