Seahorse Class – A case study into developing outdoor learning in EYFS


For today’s blog post we’re bringing you a real life case study! Today’s post is written by Claire Hawkins a Nursery teacher from Bristol with over 26 years experience of working within EYFS. Claire runs a fantastic Instagram account @seahorseclasseyfs1 and has become a huge advocate for outdoor learning; so we asked her if she would share her insights & progress with you to help more of you get outside too! We’ll hand over to you Claire . . 

After qualifying as an Early Years Teacher 17 years ago, I found myself with a large outdoor area that felt sparse featuring huge areas of concrete and grass. I love nature and gardening at home but I never used to like outdoor play with my class! It was either too wet, too cold, too slippery, too windy or just too boring! I’d dread the different parts of the day where I was timetabled to work outdoors, because there was just nothing outside that motivated me and the provision and materials were completely uninspiring. 

Then came a time where I began to think that things needed to change. I saw how every child rushed to the outside area, excited to go out . . . yet here I was feeling reluctant, lacking in confidence and unsure of what to do within this vast space! 

I decided to improve the outdoor area and began by collecting resources from charity shops or within nature itself. I also asked the caretaker and my dad to help make things to support learning using reclaimed materials. This led to the creation of a raised bed which is now full of strawberries! I also involved the children in adding pots with bulbs and annual flowers. We then started to do activities such as bug hunting and explored the weather but I knew this just wasn’t enough. I still wasn’t enjoying my time outside! 

This led me to search for ideas around how I could use the outside space effectively. I came across @hyggeintheearlyyears and it was while delving into this approach that my attitudes began to change! I learned more about the connections between nature and the positive impact it can have on our mental health. At this point it went from an inkling to an urgent action I needed to change within my practice! 

Many children in today’s society spend less and less time outside, and this is proving to have consequences on children’s health, fitness and wellbeing. We’ve witnessed how our children’s fine motor skills are underdeveloped, even in Key Stage 1. Therefore it was clear we needed more opportunities to practise gross motor skills outside to build upon all the key skills needed for writing! 

My first job was to clear out the shed, audit what we had and throw out the junk that had gone unused for years. Finally it felt like we were getting somewhere! I added resources for continuous provision with balls, beanbags, gardening tools, magnifiers, bug hunting pots, decorators paint brushes, chalk and a range of natural loose parts. Meaning the children could independently access key resources every day! 

We built a mud kitchen, a wooden teepee and a music wall using recycled materials. Slowly I began to feel there were things in the garden for children to do, or for me to encourage them to use, to develop a wider range of skills, not just physical play. 

However, despite all of this effort, it still wasn’t enough for me. I still wasn’t enjoying outside play! 

After more searching and scrolling through Instagram I finally found Hollie and Jenny from @alfresco_learning and it was here I began to realise I needed a focus in mind when I go outside! A plan to encourage children to connect with nature and to ignite the love of the great outdoors with curiosity & wonder! I listened to their advice and bought sensible clothing for outside; a warm waterproof coat, waterproof trousers and decent warm wellies! For the children I created a unit to store their wellie-boots, added a box of spare scarves, hats and gloves and we finally started using our waterproof all in one’s we had bought some time ago! 

Finally I felt outside play had a purpose! Not just to explore physical play, but to support children’s wellbeing, curiosity and language! Now I carefully plan experiences linked to our core book or our themes and develop interests from the children. We have used ideas from the Nature Study from @hyggeintheearlyyears and the monthly challenges from @alfresco_learning with #ouralfrescoyear

When activities were planned and had more focus things began to change for me! Now I’m able to see the impact outdoor learning is having. Children are completely engrossed, motivated to learn and concentrating for long periods; returning to the learning the next session or even the next day! 

The children are fascinated with sticks and leaves and often collect them, so we’ve used this interest to make shapes, measure and create stick men! They also noticed birds in the garden, so we made bird feeders and hung them in the trees. We’ve collected some of the hundreds of tiny crab apples that fell from the trees. Then used this interest as a maths focus adding them to containers with different numbers of compartments to see if we could make sets of the same amounts!

At Christmas we made our own natural Christmas wreaths and explored the frost and ice! The children love exploring the weather so to give it some focus, I created a small display and stuck it on the back of the wellie unit. Each day we go to put on our wellies, sing the weather song and one child will decide which cards to add to the board using on their observations. This makes learning about the weather much more relevant to them as they can physically see, hear and feel the weather and as a result it’s helped develop their language and understanding! 

In the beginning I used to dread my time outdoors with the children. But since developing my outdoor practise, outdoor learning has since become my favourite way to help children learn! I’ve also noticed that my class are more confident in a less formal, outdoor environment and are developing a much richer vocabulary from exploring our outdoor space! 

There is still some work to be done outside on developing our provision & resources. But with some passion and creativity, time and energy, I believe it can be done! Quality provision really doesn’t have to be full of fancy or expensive resources! I would urge you to look around and see what you already have access to. You will be amazed how much learning you can support simply with some sticks, berries and leaves! 

I plan to continue my journey with outdoor learning so if you would like to keep up with the development of my provision and see more of our outdoor activities, please check out my Instagram page @seahorseclasseyfs1 

Claire Hawkins

Nursery Teacher (Bristol) 

Thank you Claire for an informative look inside your day to day teaching. It really is inspiring to see how not only your provision & practise has developed, but also your own feelings about outdoor learning! We hope our readers have enjoyed our first outdoor learning case study & feel inspired to embark upon their own outdoor learning journeys. 

For your own first-hand, outdoor experience, consider booking one of our curriculum-based workshops! We could help you & your staff develop a passion for outdoor learning, whilst delivering a fun & engaging session to your children.

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