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The benefits of outdoor, messy, exploratory play

The benefits of outdoor, messy, exploratory play
April 28, 2015 Peter Samuel

Just Add Mud was formed with the intention to help parents, grandparents, teachers and early years practitioners to create really inspiring outdoor environments without spending a fortune. We have started by creating a mud kitchen and are currently working on many other outdoor play products.

The benefits of outdoor play

Our work is informed by a belief that forming a connection with wildlife and the natural world can have a transformative influence on people of all ages but particularly children. Positive outdoor experiences can improve a child’s intellectual, cognitive, physical and emotional development.

“children who learn outdoors know more, understand more, feel better, behave better, work more cooperatively and are physically healthier.” Natural Childhood, by Stephen Moss for the National Trust

The sense of freedom that comes with being outside can create a relaxed atmosphere where children feel less inhibited and more engaged, motivated and willing to join in with activities. This can also result in more opportunities for problem solving and cooperative play, which can help build relationships leading to a heightened sense of wellbeing and greater emotional resilience. Encouraging children to develop an affinity with the natural world from a young age is also great from a conservation / ecological point of view.

Bringing the Forest School approach to any setting

Given the benefits listed above, it follows that spending time playing outside should be a fundamental early childhood experience. This ethos is at the heart of the Forest School and Beach School approaches where children learn in and from nature. Many early years settings now adopt these approaches, however it’s important to stress that this is an accessible approach to outdoor learning that does not require access to great outdoor space or woodland and does not require a big budget. It’s an ethos that can be utilised and adapted in small outdoor spaces simply by providing an area for children to play with the sensory elemental materials of the natural world.

Such materials constitute a timeless and universal play kit which provide enormous opportunities for learning. As Jan White noted in her book Making a Mud Kitchen:

“Mixing soil, water and a range of other natural materials has a foundational role in early childhood which has deep importance, and endless possibilities for well-being, development and learning. The breadth and depth of what these experiences offer young children is truly remarkable.”

By bringing these natural materials together in the context of a mud kitchen the experience becomes even more accessible. Needless to say, where there is a mud kitchen there needs to be mud! In many settings this is easy enough to find, but in other smaller spaces without access to a digging area, bushes and trees it requires a bit more thought – as discussed in our post ‘How to adapt your outdoor area to incorporate a mud kitchen’.

However, a mud kitchen should be viewed very much as a single component. A great outdoor environment should provoke curiosity and facilitate opportunities for children to discover, experiment, investigate, invent, express themselves creatively and learn through open ended play and child led experiences.

A mud kitchen offers a great foundation which you can then adapt and add to, involving the children who will be using your outdoor space. There are many simple things that you can make and do to enhance your outdoor area without spending much or even anything at all – as discussed here. Moreover, we’ve also put together some free printable resources to support and reinforce outdoor learning. These can be found here.

If you would like advice about how best to shape your outdoor environment to break the divide between indoors and outdoors then please get in touch, we’re happy to help in any way we can.

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