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Taking early learning outside

By now, we are mostly all in agreement that “kids these days” don’t spend enough time outside. We know that many kids, even those who are very young, are spending too much time indoors in front of screens. There are so many benefits to children from spending time outdoors. Conversely, there is much data to suggest negative effects of excessive screen time. Approximately 87 per cent of preschool-aged children do not meet their recommended guidelines for sufficient sleep, physical activity, and screen time.

When I was a kid, my mom used to say I was going to get “square eyeballs” from watching too much TV. Though that is not an actual risk, having too much screen time has significant effects on children. When kids spend too much time on electronic devices, they may miss out on learning through exploring their environments or watching and imitating others around them. It’s known that children learn much more when engaging and interacting with other people than they do from watching a video. Children with a lot of screen time may also score lower on language and thinking tests and may even experience thinning of the brain’s cortex, impacting critical thinking and reasoning. Young children develop rapidly, and it has been shown that the first three years of development are integral.

The benefits of outdoor play are almost immeasurable. Being outside results in improved motor skills and muscle strength, lower BMI, and better health overall. It also has social and emotional development benefits, such as an increased openness with parents and caregivers, greater self-awareness, improved relationships with their peers, and an appreciation for nature. Being outdoors helps kids use all their senses, develop independence, and improve their communication skills. It aids with brain development, even strengthening kids’ ability to count and learn about relationships between numbers. It helps them take risks, teaching them confidence, and allows them to know their limits. Additionally, our bodies need sun to generate vitamin D, which plays a crucial role in many body processes,including the immune system. The evidence is also increasinglyshowing that there are drawbacks to being “too clean.” Our obsession with hygiene actually increases the likelihood of illness, allergies, and asthma in children. So getting dirty isn’t just fun—it’s healthy, too!

“Nature has a purpose in learning, developments, and in building a sense of place in the world,” says David Sobel, the author of many books and articles on children and nature. The original “kindergarten” (children’s garden) was founded in 1837 by Friedrich Froebel, a German educator. The foundation of this school was grounded in his philosophy that children need to be active learners. His lessons literally took place in a garden. Forest Schools, Nature Schools, and outdoor preschools have emerged out of Froebel’s work, first in Scandinavian countries, but more and more are being established in Canada and other places in the world. There are quite a few in BC, though almost exclusively in the Lower Mainland.

Learning outdoors has vast developmental benefits for kids of all ages (not to mention it’s the safest way to learn during a global pandemic!) Because of this, more and more outdoor, nature-based programs are popping up for early learners. This has been the case for years, but now with the existence of COVID-19, their numbers are increasing rapidly. These programs, where kids play, learn, eat, and even sometimes sleep, mainly or entirely outside, no matter the weather, are becoming highly sought-after by parents looking for non-traditional programs for their young children. These programs help kids become more resilient and expand their comfort zones while showing them that learning happens everywhere, not just in classrooms. Outdoor education helps kids become more reflective and inquisitive, helps them improve their problem-solving skills, and even teaches them about science.

Science is the practice of understanding the world around us. What better way to create tomorrow’s scientists than to help children explore and learn about the natural world? In 2009, an idea came to fruition at The Exploration Place with the creation of the Explorers Urban Garden Project, a community teaching garden focusing on environmental gardening, biology, recycling, composting, food security, ethnobotany, urban greening, and quality of life. The idea grew out of the realization that many people, especially children in urban areas, have become increasingly separated from their food sources. When the idea of the garden was first introduced to the children in our Integrated Learning programs, some of the children thought food came only from the grocery store, not from the ground! Many of the children who did know where fruits and vegetables come from were still resistant or unwilling to try eating them.

In addition to being a museum, The Exploration Place is also northern BC’s only science centre. The garden offers a great forum to do just that. Gardens are a wealth of scientific information, essentially like living laboratories. They are dynamic environments that engage all five senses, letting children observe, discover, experiment, nurture, and learn. Children learn best by doing, and when they can, quite literally, get their hands dirty, they become participants in the experience rather than merely observers. Children are curious by nature, and a garden gives them the chance to satisfy this innate curiosity by investigation and experimentation. Why are leaves green? What do plants need to survive and thrive? What kind of insects are friends to a garden, and which are not? Children learn both through educational programs developed by staff and by simply investigating their surroundings.

After COVID-19 hit, and then our building remained closed due to renovations, we had to be creative when it came to offering programming. We couldn’t continue our traditional licensed science-based Early Explorers Preschool program, but then we thought—why not offer it outside? The Explorers Urban Garden seemed like the perfect place for what is now known as Early Explorers Outside. Friedrich Froebel would have approved.

We piloted this entirely outdoor, nature-based program throughout the summer and are now offering it every weekday during the fall and likely into the winter. For now, this program requires parent participation, but the ultimate goal is to run a program for parents who want to drop off their children for a couple hours a day of outdoor fun and learning with our qualified staff.

Check out The Exploration Place’s website to learn more about Early Explorers Outside and how you can register your child: www.theexplorationplace.com.

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