The benefits of being outdoors in nature Part 1

THE BENEFITS OF BEING OUTDOORS IN NATURE – Part 1

By Kathryn Solly, B.Ed, MA, PGCE (SEN), NPQICL. Specialist Early Years One Speaker, Consultant, Trainer and Author

Since the lockdowns of the pandemic, many of us have realised that nature and being outdoors is crucial to our wellbeing and health. We have also started to learn that we are all vulnerable at some point. A 2018 survey by the Mental Health Foundation found that almost three quarters (74%) of people have at some point felt so stressed they felt overwhelmed or unable to cope. For some of us these difficulties may come and go, and for others they may be more long-lasting. If we can walk in the woods or be beside the sea then this can lift our mood and improve our inner calm. Birdsong was something we started to hear again, for example. Some studies suggest that being around animals and wildlife may be beneficial for overall well being. They have found that activities involving observing and interacting with wildlife in their natural habitat, such as watching birds in a garden, can improve people’s feelings of wellbeing, relaxation, and connection to nature. Sadly, for some it has also been harder to access outdoors if there was no park or open space within walkable distance locally. 

Wellbeing includes:

  • good physical health, 
  • feelings of happiness, satisfaction, etc.
  • successful social functioning.

It influences the way adults and children interact in their environments. A strong sense of wellbeing provides children with confidence and optimism which maximise their learning potential. It flourishes when we provide children with opportunities to experience the following:

• Time:  develop at their own pace and explore their own interests.

• Agency:  influence over what they do and some choices.

• Belonging: be cared for as part of a community.

• Competence: the feeling of being successful. 

These can all be easily achieved outdoors; and the rise of outdoor nurseries, nature-nurture and forest/beach schools are evidence of growing popularity and increasing awareness of the need for children to have more quality time outdoors. Nature is everywhere and is a learning laboratory for children. Sensorial and elemental experiences such as water, sand, gravel, mud, air, wood, fire, and rock all provide huge opportunities if used wisely to link to children’s curiosity, interests and unique motivations. Being in nature:

  • Enables them to develop understanding often through repetition.
  • Encourages them to experiment, explore, problem-solve, try things out, reflect and refine.
  • Allows them to make and play with mistakes and stretch possibilities.
  • Provides them with rich experiences to develop language to make sense of the world.
  • Encourages them to develop a variety of emotional and creative expressions to develop their communication with.

Thus, play and learning outdoors in nature is powerful and enabling. It is important because:

  • The outdoor environment has unique characteristics and features. 
  • Outdoor learning has equal value to indoor learning. 
  • It has a positive impact on children’s wellbeing and development. 
  • Children need the support of attentive and engaged adults who are enthusiastic about the outdoors and understand the importance of outdoor learning. 
  • Outdoor play is enhanced by an environment that is richly resourced with materials that can be adapted and used in different ways. 
  • An approach to outdoor learning that considers experiences rather than equipment places children at the centre of the provision being made.

For children there are numerous benefits to being outdoors in nature:

  • Increased hormones such as serotonin which helps children stay alert, active, focus. Dopamine which is also produced when children move activates the ‘pleasure response’ that then inspires them to keep moving and oxytocin helps them to be positive and happier.
  • Exposure to Vitamin D in sunlight, supports the immune system and captures dietary calcium from blood to bone structure.
  • Exposure to Mycobacterium vaccae a bacterium that lives in soil, helps strengthen immunity and can promote resilience to stress and anxiety.
  • The movement senses – proprioceptive (body sense, control and management in space), vestibular (balance and equilibrium) and interoceptive (internal body awareness) systems all require movement experiences which help build a variety of balance, coordination, strength, spatial awareness and collaboration skills to develop and support essential learning.
  • Visual skills – being outside enables eyes to switch at speed from near to far vision; the iris learns to adapt between dark and light spaces, and the eye muscles practise changing from fine eye movements to holding a steady gaze
  • Listening skills – being able to filter out sound qualities and make sense of a 3D soundscape outdoors.
  • Develops the important gross-motor skills alongside fine-motor skills. 

Young children often see things which we miss – the dandelion fighting its way through a crack in the pavement, or the iridescence on a pigeon’s feathers, for example. We must start by going out and looking for nature around us. If we allow children to lead we can learn from them. Access to green space, such as fields, forests, parks, and gardens plus blue spaces such as the waterside of canals, rivers, ponds and the sea, all bring a reduced risk of mental health problems, improved mood, and increased life satisfaction. Other benefits include reduced stress, increased physical activity, and better physical health. Even in cities, nature is there if we look. Allotments, community gardens and parks are a great place to start as these are the lungs of urban environments. The sky provides a wealth of inspiration in terms of clouds – try watching them as you walk. Going outdoors for physical exercise such as a walk, a run around, to explore and discover locally is critical. Exercise outdoors seems to have the extra benefits of reducing anger, sadness and fatigue.  However, for many children this is declining due to the increasing emphasis on earlier and earlier on schooling. 

  • We know that babies and young children are active. Physical development sits at the heart of well-being, learning and development – it helps create ‘school readiness’.
  • Children need to be freely active in all they do every day and experience the joy of bodily movement and feeling capable.
  • Every child is unique and individual in their development, so we must attune ourselves to their individual physicality.

The links between nature and creativity have also shown great benefits. Photography, painting, craft, writing, dance etc can all be inspired by the changes in the weather, the seasons and nature itself. There is much research that people who spend time gardening experience a wide range of positive results including improvements in mood, quality of life and feelings of community. There is also research which suggests that taking part in social action outdoors and making an impact in our local area not only benefits the community at large but also ourselves. Studies have found a link between taking part in social action or community engagement activities and increased empathy, self-confidence and self-esteem, as well as an increased sense of community. 

Part 2 of this blog from the amazing Kathryn will be next week. Follow us on Resilient Kid so you don’t miss it! https://www.facebook.com/groups/resilientkidgroup

Kathryn’s details can be found here – www.solly.biz for educational training, research and marketing.

Her first book ‘Adventure, Risk and Challenge in the Early Years’ is available from Routledge : www.routledge.com. This is also translated into Chinese.
She has also contributed to ‘Achieving Excellence in the Early Years: a guide for headteachers.’ Available from www.early-education.org.uk

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