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'Remarkable Differences' – children change when they learn outdoors: final in the Raw & Unearthed series

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As a society we want children to be divergent thinkers, but seldom do we really give them opportunity to be so.

Outdoors, there is no other option.

They have to push through their own barriers and experience a sense of boredom. Invent ideas and bring them to life.

…not a worksheet in sight…

We have observed children demonstrating such a deep level of concentration and focus, sometimes upwards of two hours in any given session as they work with sticks, fallen branches, string and tools such as saws, hammers and pocket knives to create tipi-like structures and dens and art.

They create and then return to their creations week after week; reflecting on the design, hypothesizing why one part of the structure collapsed but the other didn’t, engineering ways to reinforce shelter to withstand the rock wallabies visits upon dusk, and how to camouflage it so other visitors to the reserve won’t deconstruct it.

One week we saw a child go all the way back to the drawing board to re-envisage and re-design their structure with pencils and paper, problem solving in its finest form! This child experienced resilience, self-drive, motivation, commitment, creativity, reflexivity and enthusiasm, and not a worksheet in sight…

…children can’t bounce off the walls if there are no walls…

So what is it exactly about the outdoors that creates these remarkable differences and deep learning opportunities for children?

Being outdoors naturally takes you away from over-stimulating, mind-absorbing technologies. It removes the desire to over-plan and over-schedule days. It allows children to move their bodies in the way they need to move, to grow and develop. It fills your lungs with fresh air, your skin with warmth and your heart with so much more.

The old saying that children can’t bounce off the walls if there are no walls is 100% true. There is so much to do, see, touch, smell and listen to that you will find your whole body is absorbed without even trying. It is stimulating, engaging and relaxing all at once putting your mind into a calm yet alert state of mind that is optimal for learning.

All they do is play outdoors, right?

At the beginning of each term we have new families join our ever growing community.

Often as the term gets underway, shyness disappears and confidence blossoms. That outreached arm connected to Mum’s leg begins to peel away and any notion of self-doubt becomes a mere sparkle in the distance.

Our practice is to allow children (and families) time and space to grow, become and be. This evolves differently for everyone, but we can proudly say that after spending a term or more with us outdoors, the children are physically stronger, more confident, self-aware, and resilient. They additionally have a greater understanding of the world in which they live. They know who they are, what they are capable of and can persevere through challenges to see a task to the end.

But how? Just how is this possible? All they do is play outdoors, right?

While this is true, it is the value that we place on this play and the time that we provide that will allow our children to succeed. This unhurried, unstructured time outdoors in nature is what will allow our children to become strong, healthy, capable and knowledgeable beings.

In one session a child found a baby bird that had fallen from a nest. It was no longer alive. Demonstrating a strong connection to place and acceptance of the death of the bird he then decided that he wanted to bury it, explaining that he, ‘didn’t want the family to be sad’.

So he set about finding the ‘right’ spot under a tree. He carefully found some bark a gently levered the bird onto the bark and moved it off the track. He was concerned that the ‘mummy bird would be sad because she wouldn’t know where her baby was’. He cut lengths of stick and took on the responsibility to create a nest from twigs, sticks and leaves. He placed leaves over the top of the bird. As he put the final leaf down he commented, ‘I’m always worried about dead birds.’

This real opportunity for learning alongside and in nature is just one example of many that naturally occur when outside. Empathy, understanding, life, respect and relationships are just a couple of the big picture learning outcomes that occurred in this session and we couldn’t have pre-planned or programmed this if we tried.

Time in Nature is not leisure time, it’s an essential investment in our children’s health (and also, by the way, in our own)

Richard Louv

It is our patience, our encouragement and our affordance of time that will encourage children to overcome challenges, failures and self-doubt with their own dedication, perseverance and commitment. The freedom that we can offer them will allow their wings to unfold, their imagination to unleash, and their spirits to truly come alive.

Just last week we observed a group of children collaborating and working together to move a large fallen branch. Their destination was unknown but their journey held the weight of their game. Respect was shown as each child confidently shared their ideas.

The dynamics of the group shifted as the play evolved and the flow of ideas we taken on board, some proved more successful than others. The branch was carried across the grassy space and lifted, pulled and dragged up onto the larger puddle rock.

Deep learning was taking place.

Language through conversation and discussion.

Physical wellbeing in strength, balance and control.

Self-awareness with pride, capabilities and social positioning.

Resilience was built with unsuccessful ideas but they persevered anyway.

Inspiration was given to other children as they saw the group trek past.

Some chose to join in, while others found their own quiet space to re-enact what they had seen, building social confidence at their own rate. Smiles beamed as the branch was marched past, then placed quietly on the ground as the play came to an end.

These children have remarkable differences to others, they have skills that cannot be taught. These skills need to be built over time in an outdoor natural unstructured space. Only then can the raw and unearthed child be born.


Bec Carey and Sarah Hammersley​

Bec Carey and Sarah Hammersley are early childhood teachers on endless adventures in nature. With 23 years’ ECEC experience between them they have created a program that takes children outside the gates and into the magical spaces of Kincumba Mountain Reserve on the NSW Central Coast ​.

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19 thoughts on “'Remarkable Differences' – children change when they learn outdoors: final in the Raw & Unearthed series

  1. I had a huge learning moment myself in that first experience with the bird. Just standing back and taking in what he wanted to do rather than jumping in telling him not to touch it. It is truly amazing what children can teach us as parents and as educators!

    1. Thank you for sharing your reflection Katie! When we shift the balance of power and open ourselves to following the lead of the child we get to again share in the magic of experiencing the world the eyes of our own inner child. Bring wonder back to teaching!

  2. Our preschool is currently involved with a Nature Play Research Project being conducted by Dr Sue Elliott and her team at Thalgarrah Environmental Education Centre. This blog appeared today after we had an information session about the research, and it mirrored the conversations we had about the benefits of being involved in the nature play project. Thank you for sharing your story.

      1. Hi, I loved your article and will be sharing it to the Cedarsong Nature School FB page. I am hoping you will edit the post to correctly attribute my original quote “Children cannot bounce off the walls if we take away the walls”, copyrighted in my book “Forest Kindergartens: The Cedarsong Way”. Thank you!


        Erin Kenny
        Cedarsong Nature School, Vashon, WA, USA.

        1. Hi Erin – that quote is now linked directly to your website. Love your work! Bec Lloyd.

    1. How exciting Sue! Your children, families and staff will never look back after being involved in this research project. Your whole way of teaching, learning and working with children will be forever transformed. Hope to be able to hear and see your story unfold somewhere too. All the best!

  3. Thank you for this post – it really resonated with me. For many years I worked at a preschool nestled in the Australian bushland and it became a natural extension of our learning environment. One of the biggest benefits of this was that we had the ability to shift a challenging behaviour dynamic on a given day just by taking a small group into the bush to simply be. No agenda, no rush.

    We had a small creek about 5 minutes walk away, shaded by trees and bounded by a platform of rock. This space never failed to create calm – amongst educators and children alike! It was like refueling – the effect lasted when we returned to preschool.

    Since that time I have no doubt about the tremendous therapeutic impact that nature has on us all, and wish that more were in a similar position to experience it. It doesn’t even mean going beyond the gate if we put thought and attention into created our natural outdoor spaces in early learning settings.

    I look forward to reading more of your posts!

    1. Oh Jenny, I hear you. Thank you for your feedback and for sharing your story and experiences.

      It agree it would be a wonderful thing for more children and educators to have access to wilder spaces but enriching, vibrant, sensory rich natural spaces can be created within the fences (and they don’t have to be developed by professional landscapers).

      Many moons ago I worked at a service that had the typical ‘Childcare’ outdoor flat softfall surfacing with a sandpit plonked right in the middle of the space. We worked extremely hard as a team and with our family community to collect pots, tyres, wooden crates etc and built a beautiful garden space full of grasses, shrubs, vines, edible and flowering plants. It became our natural ‘potted’ wonderland.

      Creating a haven with and for children within the space that they spend the most time should be the first priority before looking to head out of the service setting. Replicating the sense of timelessness, freedom and spontaneity that is found outside back into the service environment is one of the biggest challenges yet most rewarding experiences you can have as a teacher.

      Happy playing!

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