Spending time outdoors has many benefits for children. Children can move their bodies freely and experience various types of exercise, and fresh air and sunshine are important for physical health. Spending time outdoors can present opportunities to help children learn health and safety concepts through integrated and experiential curriculum activities.
Although time on the playground is valuable for children, it is only one of many outdoor experiences. Look at the neighborhood surrounding your childcare program to identify appropriate outdoor locations to visit. It is not necessary to have beautiful parks, famous zoos, bird sanctuaries, flower gardens, or other formal settings to have successful outdoor adventures full of learning and fun.
All locations offer potential learning for young children and can offer concrete experiences necessary for them to understand safety concepts and ideas. Outdoor trips may include a field trip requiring transportation, a short walk around the block, or a “nature walk” in your back yard. Remember that even short adventures that are well planned can enhance learning and development of skills for young children; so look for opportunities and be creative.
Young children do not learn health and safety concepts in isolation or with only one encounter. Identify the health and safety concepts to be reinforced through the outdoor activities, so introduce these before the trip and reinforce with follow-up activities and materials after the trip. Because children learn in an integrated way, you can introduce health and safety habits, and encourage them to develop social skills, and teach other concepts as well.
The possibilities for learning while outdoors are limitless. For example, children can learn to recognize street and business signs, practice traffic safety, identify weather conditions, recognize potentially poisonous plants and berries, and much more.
Signs help children learn to recognize important symbols and words, such as Caution, Poison, Walk, Wait, Stop, and Danger. Learning about signs can introduce the concept of dangerous situations and how to avoid them. A well-planned walk can help children understand that some signs, like “Wait” and “Walk,” give us directions to keep us safe. Before the walk, show children the words and symbols that they may see on signs. Take a short list of words for children to use as they search for signs.
To reinforce the outdoor experience and extend the children’s knowledge of signs in the childcare program:
- Add purchased or homemade signs to the block and dramatic play center.
- Post traffic signs on the tricycle path.
- Cut large pictures of signs into puzzles for children to reassemble.
- Read books that are related to signs.
Addresses & Safe Spaces
A walk to look at signs that show the names of streets and addresses can be the groundwork to help children learn their own addresses and phone numbers. Remember, some children have more than one “home” address and all activities should be flexible enough to integrate changing family types. Maps can be used to reinforce the concept of “addresses.” Free maps may be available from tourist information centers, hotels, car rental offices, and other businesses for travelers.
Another outdoor activity with signs involves identifying safe spaces. Help children understand that most adults are responsible and kind, but that sometimes an adult may make them feel unsafe. Fire stations, police stations, health departments, libraries, and other places in the community may be “safe places” for children if they need them. During a walk, look for safe space signs used in your community or identify addresses for community helpers.
A trip outdoors to study the weather can be used to teach science and safety as you discuss tornados, hurricanes, thunderstorms, extreme heat, and other conditions that merit safety considerations. Practice a variety of safety drills to reinforce learning. However, take care that children are not overly frightened by the bad weather discussions and drills.
To study the sun, children can simply go outdoors to watch their shadows. This can be an exciting adventure for young children. Encourage them to move about in a safe setting so that they are getting exercise while they learn about shadows.
Invite children to work in pairs where one strikes a pose and the other does a chalk outline of the shadow. This may help children develop team work, body control, and fine motor skills. Also, children’s excitement at seeing their shadows drawn may encourage ongoing communication and facilitate language development.
Playing in the sunshine also is a good time to discuss vision safety. Explain to children that they should never look directly at the sun! Also, discuss and implement important sun safety measures such as sun screen and sunglasses.
Hiking is a fun learning adventure for young children and an excellent way to build physical fitness. Hiking also helps children learn how to work together and support each other. It is an acceptable way to help children learn to walk in lines without bumping into each other or leaving people behind. Hiking also can help young children learn about respecting and appreciating nature. Allow the children to stop and look at a beautiful flower or bush, but leave it intact so others can enjoy the beauty. Children should learn that there are places they can garden and cut flowers, but that it is inappropriate while hiking or on other people’s property. They need to know that they should not dig up plants, cut flowers, throw trash in the path, etc.
Small printed guides can be taken along to visually examine plants (berries, etc.) and talk about how some are poisonous. Supervise children closely to be sure they do not touch or eat plants on the walk! Remember to either take water bottles or make it a very short hike, and include sun protection.
No matter where your childcare center or home is, you may find a fulfilling and educational trip just around the corner. Remember to have parents’ written permission, take emergency contact information with you, coordinate with your administration or parent volunteers for transportation and communication (cell phones, radios, etc.), keep a first aid kit with you, and prepare the children before any outing. Keep the outing brief, and have fun!
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