There has been a strong movement over the last few years to encourage the use of outdoor spaces to support learning. The Forest School Association describe these as “a unique way of building independence, self-esteem and a positive attitude towards learning in children and young people as they explore and experience the natural world for themselves”. They go on to say that “A combination of freedom and responsibility is beneficial to children with little confidence or challenging behaviour. Valuable life skills are learnt – communication, team working and responsibility”.

The mental health charity, Mind, describes researched benefits of spending time in nature as helping with mental health problems, including anxiety and depression. Mind identifies research into ecotherapy (a type of formal treatment which involves doing activities outside in nature) and reports that it has been shown to help with mild to moderate depression. This might be due to combining regular physical activity and social contact with being outside in nature.

Being outside in natural light can also be helpful for people who experience seasonal affective disorder (SAD), although as we head towards lighter days, this feels less of an issue.

In addition to the benefits above, we know that children (and adults) benefit from getting outside every day for the following reasons:

  • the exercise boosts our physical fitness (as well as our mental health)
  • it encourages greater environmental awareness
  • it helps to make children more tired (making it easier for them to sleep)
  • it provides a frequently needed change of scene and
  • when it is cold, it makes us feel warmer when we come back inside

Being outside is also a great place to learn and develop the crucial skills of language and communication. It enables children to be more physical in their learning and has the extra advantage of a bigger space for pairs or small groups to talk together.

Here are a few activities to try with larger or smaller groups outside, along with linked opportunities for language development:

  • Go for a listening walk – build children’s attention skills and encourage them to focus in on different sounds by listening to those in the environment. It may be a bird singing or a distant siren – good listening is the foundation of good language development. There is also an opportunity to learn new vocabulary, e.g. for different kinds of birds or more unusual sounds. Encourage children to share information with others about what they heard. This sharing can include role playing – include roles such as ‘researchers’ or ‘interviewers’ to help structure children’s conversations.
  • Turn the outdoor space into a supermarket – group the children in small groups or pairs and, depending on their ages, give them a shopping list that is either written or with pictures, or ask the groups to find individual items that they are given verbally. The rules of the game include the fact that each member of the group is responsible for finding an individual item but that the children must always stay together in their group. The ‘shopping list’ items can include specific objects, such as a stick, or a leaf. Or they could be descriptions, e.g. something ‘rough’, ‘yellow’ or ‘knobbly’, or involve more creative descriptions, e.g. ‘something a mouse could make a bed in’. This activity helps develop listening, understanding and vocabulary development. It also encourages use of language in planning together.
  • Colours in nature – as larger groups, look for colours in the outside environment that match the clothes that you are wearing – a red sign to go with your jumper or a black car that’s the same colour as your shoes. This activity can be used for vocabulary development or development of listening and understanding skills, e.g. “We’re looking for something the same colour as Ahmet’s top pocket.” An alternative activity is to see how many different items of a particular colour you can see.
  • Starting sounds – in smaller or larger groups, look for things that start with a certain letter of the alphabet. Perhaps try the first sound of one of the children’s names, or spell out a whole word across each day of the week. This activity helps with phonological awareness and segmentation skills for literacy development.

Whatever you choose to do, make sure that children have plenty of opportunities to learn outdoors, even if it is only for a short time each day. Above all, use the time to chat about what you see. This will help develop children’s language skills as well as gaining all the benefits of being outdoors.

Help parents/carers get involved with practising language skills while outside with their children; more ideas for outdoor activities can be found below (please share with your parents/carers):

Family activities for outdoor adventures | National Trust

Activities | Scouts

Activities for kids – Woodland Trust Ideas | 37 Fun Outdoor Activities for Kids (

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