Even while we know that outdoor learning and play benefits children in many ways, it can still be daunting to embrace this during all seasons of the year, particularly winter. Rachel Larimore— nature-based learning consultant, coach, and author of Preschool Beyond Walls: Blending Early Childhood Education and Nature-Based Learning— shares advice on how to prepare for and embrace outdoor learning during the winter months.
Hello, I'm Rachel Larimore and author of the Gryphon House published book: Preschool Beyond Walls: Blending Early Childhood Education and Nature-Based Learning. As an author, speaker, coach, and consultant with my organization, Samara Early Learning, I help early childhood educators create nature-based schools or add the nature-based approach to their existing curriculum .
It seems everywhere you turn these days, there's talk about outdoor learning, and for good reason! Outdoor play supports all aspects of children's development. This includes their physical health, such as being active, their balance, and coordination. But outdoor play also supports children's social-emotional health, their learning skills, and cognitive development, including their love of learning. And being outside helps children connect to others and something bigger than themselves.
Yet even when we know all these benefits and that it's good for kids to be outside, it can still be a daunting task, especially in the winter time when the weather may be less than ideal outdoors. It can even feel sometimes like the natural world is out to make your life harder as a teacher! I assure you that is not the case. The trick to enjoying the outdoors in winter is to embrace what is unique about the season, rather than fighting a guest against it. So really lean into what is winter. What do I mean by this?
In general I hear two questions about winter. One: how do we keep children warm? And two: what do we do when we're outside? The answer to both questions requires accepting what is happening where you are in the world in winter. Let me explain a little more in detail.
Keeping Children Warm Outside in the Winer
The first question, how do we keep children warm? Well, first and foremost, we have to ensure they have the right clothing for the weather. Some of you watching may be in more northern climates with temperatures well below freezing, and others of you may be where it only occasionally drops below freezing. Either way, you'll want to provide families with clear guidance on clothing. This includes hats, waterproof gloves—not the stretchy cotton ones—boots, and coats. And then the colder climates, insulating layers with long underwear and wool socks.
If families don't have the gear, it's important that you provide the gear for children, just like you would provide writing utensils, toys, games, and all of those things indoors for children's learning. If you believe outdoor learning is critical to their development, then we also have to provide appropriate clothing for them to have a safe, positive, outdoor experience.
Once children have the right clothing, then we definitely want to make sure that they're staying warm. Clothing is half the battle, but there's also staying warm once they're outside. This can include being active with lots of gross motor activities that keep their body temperature up. Also keep in mind if they're moving a lot, children may actually want to take layers off—and that's okay!
We want to keep the sweat to a minimum so that when they stop moving, they won't get chilled. So if a child is running around and hot, I suggest they start by unzipping their coats and then maybe remove their coats and start that way— rather than starting with your hat— but just to kind of vent a little bit.
Those are active activities, but some may be a little more sedentary, such as group meetings. And in these cases, we want to think about insulation under a child's bottom to keep them off of cold surfaces. You also want to think about windbreaks or other shelters. Think about warm snacks, and any other things we can do to keep them warm in those less active moments.
Outdoor Activities in the Winter
Okay, once children are warm, there's the question of what do we do? Well, once again, I think it's best to lean into winter rather than fight against it. It doesn't make a lot of sense to study flowers in winter, in most places in the world anyway. But studying animal tracks in the snow or in the mud would make more sense. Snow and ice are rich with all sorts of learning, from studying the snowflakes themselves, building with the snow, using the snow as a canvas for writing with watercolor-filled squirt bottles. All of these activities connect to what's happening outside.
And with that in mind, I encourage you to take some time to identify what is happening outside in winter where you live. What is unique at this time of year related to plants, animals, and weather? Knowing the natural cycles where you live will make it even easier to support outdoor learning.
Also, I should mention that activities don't have to only occur outdoors. Bring nature inside, literally, by bringing snow and ice inside. Fill that sensory table with snow! But we can also bring nature indoors through books, stories, games, and all sorts of other materials.
Hopefully these tips of helping children stay warm outdoors, using the lessons nature is already providing every day— lean into that!— and bringing nature indoors will help you implement more nature-based learning in your classroom. I'm confident with these small shifts that you and your children will be inspired to spend even more time outside exploring and discovering the wonders of the natural world.
If you have additional questions, please check out my book—Preschool Beyond Walls: Blending Early Childhood Education and Nature-Based Learning— or reach out to me in the links provided on the Gryphon House Website. And in the meantime, keep changing lives!