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Kids getting their hands dirty: A step in outdoor learning

By Kristine Pohorilyj

July 14th, 2021



Child with tools outside6

I saw my younger brother head outside to take pictures for a scrapbook assignment in the middle of the day. Sure enough, he has a chance to get in touch with his creative side.  Play has been described as 'what children and young people do when they are not being told what to do by adults.' In early settings, school children get a lot of being told what to do. Well play is really important through a child's education, too. It is particularly important in the early years because play is how young children learn. We often relate this to how animals learn. We see baby animals playing, and it's the same for children. So, for young children, that is how they learn. During the pandemic, I think it's been apparent that the natural environment of being out in the open, being outside, is really important for overall well-being. A growing body of evidence supports the claim that access to safe, natural places improves health across a wide variety of areas, including heart health, mental health, weight management, ADHD, and stress among children1. The purpose of this blog is to make the case for integrating outdoor learning in education, as not only beneficial for children’s well-being, but also in helping them create a better relationship with the environment as they grow up. 

The theory of play and outdoor learning

Why do we need to play? The early years are transformational, and if we get the early years right, it's been proven that people are going to have a much better relationship with their natural environment in later life2. Also, it's been proven to improve social skills, self-esteem, emotional intelligence, and concentration capacity. We have to consider these early years, and this is a good time to develop early on into adulthood this understanding of the environment and our roles and responsibilities towards it. For example, talking about ways to live a sustainable life is one thing, but to actually see suitable practices and how it can be done is different. 

Until we apply learning, we don't have it. This applies to elementary, secondary, and higher education. Whether it be field trips, labs, or co-op, it's the hands-on experience in different settings, dealing with certain tools and other kinds of people. It opens up the curiosity, motivation, and opportunity for experiential learning to occur. Experiential learning helps students transfer skills from the classroom to the real world. 

Teaching on the school grounds

Natural play environments are the epitome of science and technology learning. We can build things, we can learn about physics, math, painting with natural materials, learn about art, learn about how our body moves in space, and learn risk assessment3. For example, the Ontario Education Curriculum outlines techniques used in the classroom and how they can be transferred outside5

"By the end of Grade 12, students will acquire knowledge, skills, and perspectives that foster understanding of their fundamental connections to each other, to the world around them and all living things."

               (Acting Today, Shaping Tomorrow-Ontario Ministry of Education, p. 11)

Implementing the curriculum may be challenging, planning the What, Why, and When, but here's an extra W to add-in. What about Where? Where is the inside the best place of learning, OR is there potential for taking that lesson outside? The more pupils go out, the more this is seen as formal learning outside. 

It's not just having fun outdoors- it's proper learning. It is establishing a solid relationship with the outdoors, carrying a positive influence throughout our entire lives. 


  1. Godbey, G. (2009). Outdoor recreation, health, and wellness: Understanding and enhancing the relationship.
  2. Asfeldt, M., Purc-Stephenson, R., Rawleigh, M., & Thackeray, S. (2020). Outdoor education in Canada: a qualitative investigation. Journal of Adventure Education and Outdoor Learning, 1-13.
  3. MacDonald, K. (2016). Back to the Garten: Inquiry-Based Learning in an Outdoor Kindergarten Classroom.
  4. Karrow, D. D., & Fazio, X. (2015). Curricular Critique of an Environmental Education Policy: Implications for Practice. Brock Education: A Journal of Educational Research and Practice, 24(2), 88-108.
  5. Pxhere. (2021). Pxhere Images. Retrieved image from website free of copyrights. Accessed June 21, 2021 from


About the author Kristine Pohorilyj


Kristine Pohorilyj is doing her Masters in Biomedical Science at the University of Guelph. Her project focuses on cryoprotective agents and cryopreservation of genomic resources for biobanking nonhuman species. During the lockdown, she become a reading volunteer at her local primary school in Guelph. She is currently writing a children’s book.