The Transylvania Times -

Everyday Education: Outdoor Education Is A Powerful Tool


Last updated 5/12/2020 at 10:50am

Courtesy photo

Children can learn plant identification, geometric shapes and thermodynamics just by building a fire.

Outdoor education can take on many forms. It can be anything from science lessons outdoors, to backpacking, to building forts and enjoying self-directed imaginative play in nature. Since the publication of Richard Louv's book, "Last Child in the Woods," many studies have demonstrated the cognitive, emotional and physical health benefits of connecting children with nature.

Children who regularly play outdoors in nature are healthier, happier and smarter! Some of the benefits include increased attention spans and test scores, better physical and mental health, stronger immune systems, and improved problem solving, creative thinking and social skills.

Many schools incorporate different forms of outdoor education into their curriculum. Mountain Sun Community School classes go on overnight camping trips, which build into multi-day backpacking trips as the students get older. These trips are opportunities for children to practice real world skills like navigating and cooking, and to practice leadership and communication skills as they work as a team to meet the challenges that arise.

Another core routine at Mountain Sun is including daily opportunities for all students to play in nature. This time is full of freedom and discovery for the students. Sometimes they build shelters and create stories or gather "supplies" or cook mud pies; sometimes it just looks like a lot of running around and chasing and laughing. These self-directed adventures and explorations promote problem solving, creativity, social development and a better understanding of themselves and the world around them.

We are fortunate to have a wide range of experiential education opportunities in this county. There are nature-focused programs for all ages in Transylvania County, from birth all the way into retirement, and a wealth of natural spaces in which to play. Many schools in the area have their own outdoor education programs and intentionally engage students with the natural world. Some classes go on outdoor education adventures with programs such as Muddy Sneakers, Mountain Roots or the KALE program at Green River Preserve. Many teachers bring nature into the classroom on a regular basis, and Pisgah Forest Elementary recently constructed an outdoor classroom for their school. There are many ways to give children the benefits of time outdoors and a connection to nature.

As we head into the last weeks of the school year with the news that distance learning will continue, exploring nature and outdoor education can provide a relief to simmering "cabin fever."

As an outdoor educator I have been thinking a lot about the opportunities and challenges this situation presents. On one hand, children may have more time to play outside than usual, and on the other hand, they may be missing the peer motivation to enjoy being outside. Screens and technology have become an even bigger part of many people's lives in the past weeks, and it can be hard to resist their effortless entertainment.

Maybe families are finding themselves drawn outside by the beautiful spring weather and a desire to get a break from screens. Maybe every inch of the yard has been explored and deemed "boring." Maybe playing outside isn't part of a family's normal routine and getting started feels intimidating.

The good news is that spring is a wonderful time to explore nature; there's just so much going on! The birds are singing and nesting; the flowers are blooming – even in the cracks in the sidewalk; the bees – honeybees, bumblebees, carpenter bees – are working hard to visit all of those flowers; the animals are active, looking for mates and new food sources; the sky is blue, until it's not and then the clouds give us an ever changing view; the sun is shining and feeding the plants and warming the waters; the amphibians are laying eggs and making their spring ruckus in every ditch and puddle and pond; and on and on.

Here are some ideas your family can incorporate into your yard, even a very small yard. For a young child, the back corner of a yard can feel like a wilderness and just a few changes can make it even more engaging. For older children, creating a storyline or a challenge can provide some motivation to get started.

Create the space:

•Set aside a "wild" corner of your yard – a spot that can get a bit messy and your child can dig, make piles of sticks, create mud pies or even build a sheltered den to play in.

•A log on the ground (propped so it won't roll) makes a great balance beam, tabletop, climb-able, jump-able structure.

•Other spaces: a fire pit (for real or imaginary fires), a birdhouse or birdfeeder, a flower or pollinator garden – perfect for watching butterflies, a small vegetable garden.

Provide the tools:

•Many kids naturally want to dig and play in the dirt. Make it even more engaging with some "loose parts," such as small shovels, cardboard boxes and a variety of containers – an old pie pan can provide hours of entertainment as kids make nature pie throughout the seasons.

•Help your child collect some natural construction materials – sticks, rocks, leaves, a bit of rope, a scrap of tarp. Imagine the possibilities!

Things to do:

•Picnic in the yard. Treat it like an expedition and let your child "guide" the adventure. Or picnic at night and look at the stars.

•Make it a habit to walk around the yard with your child, looking for changes. You might see birds building nests, leaves budding, flowers blooming or animal tracks. Share in your child's excitement about their observations.

•Create a scavenger hunt. Look for textures, colors, sounds, insects, birds, etc.

•Designate a spot for a "mini nature museum" where treasures can be displayed. Look things up in field guides or online to identify them and learn more.

During these unusual and challenging circumstances brought on by COVID-19, some good old-fashioned outside play may be just the release of energy and stress your family needs. And chances are it will lead to learning something, whether that is an element of physics, interpersonal skills or a nature nugget. Don't feel like you have to wildly transform your backyard. Keep it simple and trust that with a little time, maybe even enough to get a bit bored, something interesting will start to happen.

Additional Resources:

•The Learning Through Play booklet, on the blog at

•, their activities section has printables for ages 2-8, including fun scavenger hunts and easy nature craft projects

•, educational outdoor activities sortable by age and season

•, a wonderful guide with many simple suggestions for making your yard a more exciting place to explore.

• and their app Persil Wild Explorer present activities that encourage playing outside and exploring

•If you need a field guide to identify something, check out the app options. There are apps for phones that can help with identifying everything from bird songs to stars to plants.

(Mann is the Natural Education Coordinator at Mountain Sun Community School.)


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