Spending time outdoors every day is a rich and important part of the program's chosen research-based curriculum for infants and toddlers. From the very beginning, young children satisfy their curiosity by exploring with their senses. Being outside "presents a new world of sights, sounds, smells, and tactile experiences."1 Regardless of whether children live in urban, suburban, or rural communities, the outdoor world provides opportunities to observe, discover, and learn that are not available indoors.
The following are examples of ELOF knowledge and skills that young children develop through the curriculum's outdoor experiences.
Social and Emotional Development
Infants and toddlers learn to play together when they take turns using pails and shovels, share a ride in a wagon, and chase each other. Through direct, hands-on experiences, young children learn to be gentle with living things and with each other. "Deep bonds can form between children or child and adult when they share experiences with nature. When children have daily opportunities to care for plants, trees, animals, and insects, they practice nurturing behaviors that help them interact in kind and gentle ways with people as well."2
Gross Motor, Fine Motor, and Perceptual Development
Because outdoor play spaces are often more varied and less structured than indoor spaces,3 infants and toddlers have more freedom of movement to develop their gross motor skills in novel ways. This may include crawling or rolling on grassy hills, standing and balancing on bumpy or unlevel surfaces, and jumping over puddles and sidewalk cracks. Small-motor muscles are developed as children use a pincer grasp to pick up and fill containers with natural objects and materials and dump them out or hold paintbrushes as they paint walls with water.4 Children develop perceptual skills as they move their bodies though space in different ways and at different speeds and as they observe the world from different perspectives (e.g., lying on their backs on a blanket, standing on top of a hill, or swinging back and forth in a swing).5
Contact with the outdoors helps infants and toddlers learn concepts such as cause and effect and problem-solving. As they experience and practice dressing and undressing, infants and toddlers learn which clothes to wear for different types of weather.6 They learn that the sun dries puddles and melts snow and that wind makes things move. Infants and toddlers learn important science concepts as they explore and discover the properties of natural objects and materials. STEM topics such science, technology, and math are reinforced as children notice how things are the same and different, experiment with using tools (e.g., shovels and sticks) for different purposes, and predict whether and where they will see worms after it rains.
Language and Literacy
Infants and toddlers can use their "outdoor" voices without disturbing others, as well as their "indoor" ones.7 As adults talk or sign with them about the outdoor environment, infants and toddlers learn new words; as they begin to talk, they use those words to identify interesting things they see and ask questions. They notice different sounds and learn to identify and tell them apart. Noticing and discriminating sounds is a foundational skill for later literacy development. Books take on an extended role when adults help children begin to connect ideas in books with real-life experiences, such as comparing fictional animals with live animals outdoors.8
Access to the outdoors and time spent in outdoor play and exploration is important to the health, development, and well-being of infants and toddlers. The next two parts—Considerations for Creating Safe Outdoor Play Spaces and Strategies for Maximizing Outdoor Learning Opportunities for Infants and Toddlers—present ideas for policies, practices, and strategies to support outdoor time and play.
1Thigpen, "Outdoor Play: Combating Sedentary Lifestyles," 19.
2Rosenow, "Learning to Love the Earth," 4.
3Burdett and Whitaker, "Resurrecting Free Play," 48.
4Trister Dodge et al., The Creative Curriculum, 180; Post et al., Tender Care and Early Learning, 253.
5Post et al., Tender Care and Early Learning, 253.
6Trister Dodge et al., The Creative Curriculum, 180.
8Trister Dodge et al., The Creative Curriculum, 180.
Topic: Learning Environments
National Centers:Early Childhood Development, Teaching and Learning
Last Updated: December 7, 2019