Outdoor learning environments

School Environments

Outdoor learning environments and recreation areas in schools are essential for students. Now more than ever, schools need to provide children with a strong foundation of maintaining healthy physical fitness habits throughout their life span as well as discovering the world around them outdoors. No two children are exactly alike, thus the way in which each child learns best varies as well. Having both indoor and outdoor learning opportunities is the key to providing all children the ability to achieve success.

Developing outdoor learning environments and playgrounds that address the needs of the whole child is very important. When we say the needs of the whole child, we are talking about social, emotional, physical, sensory, cognitive and communicative.

Outdoor learning environments come in many forms:

  • Playgrounds
  • Gathering Places
  • Stage/Theater,
  • Ball Fields
  • Nature and so on.

They all have their place and serve as a vehicle to create learning opportunities and experiences for students.

Playgrounds promote physical fitness, overall child development, and fun. With Play On!, teacher-led play can transform a playground into an outdoor physical education class. In most schools, physical education classes are only taught once or twice a week, but Play On! creates an opportunity for children to benefit from a standards-based physical education curriculum every school day.

Six Essential Physical Activity Benefits

Brachiating Overhead Climbing

  • Improves upper-body muscular strength and endurance
  • Promotes hand-eye coordination, kinesthetic awareness, and rhythmic body movement.


  • Enhances spatial awareness and arm and leg coordination. 
  • Advances the development of body management skills on stable and unstable apparatuses. 
  • Fosters whole-body muscular strength, endurance and flexibility. 


  • Integrates a smooth and synchronized movement pattern. 
  • Emphasizes the importance of timely energy transfer during movement.
  • Promotes aerobic fitness, muscular force, and whole-body awareness.


  • Enhances core stability, dynamic balance, and leg and hip flexibility. 
  • Provides a body and spatial awareness movement experience. 
  • Personal enjoyment!


  • Develops kinesthetic awareness and postural control.
  • Improves comprehension of speed, force, and directional qualities of movement.


  • Increases understanding of efficient body positioning and control when stationary or moving. 
  • Promotes muscular strength and endurance throughout the entire body. 
  • Introduces mechanical principles such as center of gravity, equilibrium, base of support, and counterbalances that are essential in most sport skills, especially gymnastics activities.

Ways to Create Outdoor Learning Areas

Opportunities like sand and water play and planting areas create hands-on learning and living laboratories for children.

  • Sand and water play promote sensory development and offers child-initiated activities. Cascading water invites pouring, mixing, floating, and draining small toys and other objects from the environment. Sand promotes digging, building, and sculpting. Sand and water play is a critical sensory experience for children’s healthy development.
  • Incorporate nature on the playground by offering plant areas near the equipment and outside safety use zones. Planters and play structures that incorporate window boxes combine the living space with the manufactured equipment to connect children with nature during play. Planters can provide opportunities for creating gardens where the children can plant seeds and watch them grow. Children learn from watching the planting process and gain a sense of accomplishment through nurturing the garden.
  • Loose parts and pieces also foster creativity and allow children to use their imaginations. Children can learn to use a variety of materials like rocks, leaves and sticks to make up games and adventures.

Creating and listening to music is beneficial for people of all ages and abilities.

  • Children experiment with cause and effect by making music. Since many instruments have origins in other cultures, musical instruments can enhance multi-cultural curriculum, and are beneficial for any classroom — indoors or out!

Communication development is a critical skill for early learners.

  • Many panels link familiar objects, shapes, colors and concepts to help inspire children to practice literacy and language skills. Talk tubes, sign language and other panels can also serve as a support for children with limited communication abilities.

Character development and social skills are also developed outside on the playground. Offer environments for educators and students to gather outdoors for drawing, story time, reading and sharing experiences. As children grow older, they begin to like places to hang out in an effort to socialize. Rock scapes or larger pieces of equipment that have adequate space for children to gather in small groups are important in grades third through fifth or sixth.

Later, camaraderie and working as a team are learned in sports or other games. Open spaces to play kick ball and fields for organized sports are also needed to complete our children’s outdoor learning environments.

According to the National Wildlife Federation, children who spend ample time outdoors and in nature are less stressed and anxious. These children are generally better able to interact with peers and adults, and even score higher on tests in school.

Outdoor learning environments are essential to our children and have many meaningful long-lasting benefits. Today’s child is tomorrow’s future.

Michele Ziegelmeyer is Director of Marketing at Cunningham Recreation.
Comments & Ratings