SPOTLIGHT ON Settling in: Unlocking the Transformative Potential of Outdoor Learning by Sarah Watkins

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“When we go in forest school, my tummy and all of me feels like the sunshine.”  Imogen, aged 4.

In this blog, Sarah Watkins explores ways that outdoor experiences can support children to settle in, build relationships, and develop resilience and strong wellbeing.

Nurturing the Roots of Well-being

Wild green spaces are shrinking and children are spending less time outdoors, but research shows that ‘green time’ is crucial for emotional well-being and cognitive development. Dr. Ann Masten, whose research focuses on factors that enhance resilience, talks about the concept of ‘ordinary magic.’ By this, she means that children develop resilience through their interactions with the environment and relationships with competent, caring adults.  Therefore our role is to enable children access to powerful environmental experiences, particularly outdoors.


The Five Ways to Well-being

The five ways to well-being are: connect, take notice, be active, give, and learn. The outdoors effortlessly lends itself to addressing these in Early Years. Children need a sense of connection to the land as well as to significant people. Nature-themed scavenger hunts can be a great way to build the connection to the natural world. The design of the outdoor environment is also key. Mud kitchens stimulate great communication, and the ‘cooking’ – chopping grass, stirring water, kneading mud, adding herbs – is a mindful process.

Psychologist Evan Kidd’s research shows that pretend play between adults and children elicits increased conversational turn taking and longer episodes of joint attention. Outdoor loose parts such as planks, crates, and guttering prompt children to problem solve collaboratively and ask more complex questions, and adults begin to use less directive language.

Moving in the right way

Occupational therapists talk about the ‘just right challenge’ where the adult observes the child in order to support them to move out of the comfort zone into the growth zone, whilst being careful not to venture too far into the danger zone. However, the danger zone does have its benefits! Professor Helen Dodd stresses the importance of the role of adventurous play in teaching children about uncertainty, fear, arousal, and coping. When children get to repeatedly play in this way, they are better prepared to deal with anxiety and fear-provoking situations. Even watching other children tackle these challenges helps. Climbing, for example, is instinctive behaviour for children. Children instinctively want to climb, and often seek the highest point they can access. Even babies have climbing skills – how those skills develop depends very much on whether children get the opportunity to practise. Children need to practise climbing, and every opportunity helps children learn more about body awareness and balance.

Taking Notice

Activities such as ‘meet a tree’ can further build the nature connection. One child wears a blindfold and another guides them to a tree.  The blindfolded person ‘meets’ the tree, putting their arms around it, feeling the bark, reaching up as high as they can and as low as they can. They then both move away and the blindfold is removed. Can the child guess which tree it was?

Scavenger stories are another good way to support children to take notice of what is around them – ask the children to find 3 different things outside such as leaves and twigs. Can they put these in a story, connecting the objects in some way?

The sit spot activity helps a child to really get to know a little area of nature. First, the children find their own special spot. This might be on a patch of grass, or on a log or on a bench. They get comfortable and think about what they can see, feel, hear and smell. Revisiting the sit spot in different seasons builds nature connection.

Giving back

Supporting children to be nature stewards is a great way to give back. Studying local habitats will help children understand how they can help support wildlife. For example, helping children get to know a piece of local land and care for it, or creating a hedgehog home.  One way to prompt discussions about sharing is to re-enact the stone soup story outside. I was recently in a restaurant and the waitress said “you used to teach me in Reception! I always remember when we made stone soup over the campfire. You’ll be impressed – I talked to my boss recently and now we donate our excess food to a local charity. It’s all about giving back, isn’t it, Mrs. Watkins?”


Sarah Watkins led our Early Years Inspiration Day last year at Gateway Alliance. Initially a Primary School teacher and Head Teacher, she then moved to higher education to teach the next generation of teachers. Sarah is the author of two books published by Routledge: Outdoor Play for Healthy Little Minds and 99 Eco-Activities for Your Primary School which focuses on practical ways to ensure sustainability in primary settings. Sarah is a regular columnist for Teach Early Years and Teach Primary and presents at national events including the Nursery World conference in London. Sarah is a Forest School leader and runs an outdoor play company called Dandy Lions. To learn more from Sarah, follow her @mini_lebowski