Developing Essential Early Skills Outdoors

by Marianne Sargent

This is an abridged version of an article published in Early Years Educator in September 2015. The full article is available online at


When Dame Clare Tickell undertook a review of the EYFS her recommendations highlighted the need for early years practitioners to place a renewed focus on helping children develop essential early skills in preparation for their future education.

English, maths and science are core subjects in the National Curriculum for England. However, Dame Tickell identified personal, social and emotional development, communication and language and physical development to be of ‘prime’ importance in the Early Years Foundation Stage. It was her contention that children need to develop fundamental skills in these areas in order to form a solid foundation upon which to build learning in the ‘specific’ areas of literacy, mathematics, understanding the world and expressive arts and design.

Dame Tickell also recommended the EYFS be framed around three characteristics of effective learning: playing and exploring, active learning and creating and thinking critically. She recognised the need for providing young children with time, space and an enabling environment to help them to become effective, self-motivated and independent life-long learners.

A bike in leaves

Our task in the early years is to put in the groundwork by helping children develop the prime fundamental skills and concepts that underpin the specific or core subject areas. This means providing active learning experiences that encourage children to explore concepts and practise skills through self-directed activity and play that involves hands-on investigation.

The outdoor environment plays a vital role in achieving this aim. When children are outside they have the space to move around and physically explore materials, concepts and ideas on a small or large scale. They are less restricted and have the freedom to engage in lively play, conversation and debate. They are also able to experience natural elements and phenomena first-hand. What’s more, they do not have to be concerned about making a mess or creating a din.

How Can The Outdoor Environment Support The Development Of Essential Early Skills In Maths, Science And Literacy?


In the first instance children need to develop a sense of number and number order. This is underpinned by an understanding of what numbers are and what they mean. The best way to help children develop number sense is through meaningful activities such as singing and games. Take this outside and the children have more space to embed their understanding through physical movement and action. For example, children will better understand the concept of numbers getting bigger if they can relate it to physical movement and sound. Crouching into a ball and gradually standing up while reciting numbers from zero in a whisper up to 10 with a shout is much less abstract than sitting on a carpet and chanting.

As children progress to counting they will need practice counting in a logical order using one-to-one correspondence. They will also need to understand that anything can be counted including sounds and movements. This is better taught in a large outdoor space where children can count hops, jumps and claps or goal scoring objects such as balls and quoits.

A butterfly on flowers

Painting numbers on fences, cones and balls, and making targets, number lines and number squares contributes towards creating a number rich outdoor environment. These will tempt children to play games and provide a meaningful context for recognising and recording numbers. Provide flip charts, white boards and playground chalks and children will be encouraged to record their scores.

Again, use the outdoor space to help children develop an understanding of the fundamental concepts that underpin calculation. Teach them about addition by physically separating and combining sets of objects, including themselves. Help them understand the meaning of subtraction by acting out counting rhymes such as Five Green and Speckled Frogs with the use of five frog masks, some wellies, a log and a puddle. Practice multiplication and division by pairing up socks on washing lines, dividing up portions on picnics and doubling the size of a large tower of blocks.

The outdoor environment provides an abundance of natural resources and materials that make colour and pattern activities all the more interesting and fun. Send children on scavenger hunts to find various coloured objects, make large scale natural collages and create repeating patterns with conkers and sycamore seeds. Look for shapes in nature and architecture and build sculptures with natural objects.

Create opportunities for children to physically explore space by building dens and tackling climbing frames. Help them gain an awareness of size and measures by playing racing games that involve measuring length, distance and time. Create and play with pulley systems to experiment with moving heavy weights, and set up messy mud and water activities to help children learn about capacity and volume. It is even feasible to teach children about money outdoors with possibilities that range from a fairy garden filled with treasure to an outdoor fruit and vegetable market.


Science is all about building an understanding of how the world is constructed and how things work. A good grounding involves spending plenty of time observing, exploring, comparing, sorting and classifying a wide range of natural and man-made objects, materials and living things. If children are not afforded the time and space to do this they risk developing a superficial knowledge that leads to misconception and delayed later learning.

It is vital, therefore, that children in the early years gain a broad first-hand experience of scientific phenomena, both natural and humanly-constructed. The outdoor environment provides the ideal setting for nurturing children’s curiosity and using it to inspire them to want to learn more. It gives them direct access to minibeasts and plants that can be studied in great detail with the help of magnifiers and digital technology. The weather and seasons provide endless scope for activities that introduce children to the effects of different forces and enable them to experience change. What’s more, when children are outside they have much more freedom to play with materials and explore the different states without worrying about making a mess.

Girl taking photos in a flood

The outdoor classroom provides a practical setting for introducing children to scientific enquiry skills. Practitioners can plan exciting investigations and experiments, for example, making submarines, dropping LEGO® paratroopers or freezing Disney characters in ice and snow. Such activities provide the scope for teaching about following instructions, measuring, recording, hypothesising, predicting and problem solving. An early introduction to these skills is extremely beneficial for future science education.

Communication and language is integral to early science. Children need to learn the vocabulary and language that will enable them to label objects and living things, as well as to name features and describe happenings. They need to be able to ask questions, talk about their ideas and explain their reasoning. An open-aired classroom is much more conducive to discussion and debate that involves raised voices and spirited conversation.


Use the natural environment to help children learn about how the world works. Give them first-hand experiences that they can use to learn new vocabulary, internalise and process new knowledge and develop a good understanding of basic concepts. Sticking their hands into soft, squelchy mud, squeezing it through their fingers and watching it ooze down their arms is a much more valuable than sitting indoors and looking at pictures of someone jumping into muddy puddles.

In addition, use outdoor activities such as gardening and construction to encourage the children to use creative and critical thinking skills by involving them in planning such activities, setting them up, discussing their progress and working together to solve problems as they occur. Create quiet outdoor spaces where the children can sit together, reflect and talk about their experiences.

The most fundamental literacy skill is listening. In the beginning this involves developing auditory discrimination, or the ability to hone in on and sift out important sounds from background noise. Children who have the ability to discriminate between sounds are better able to form clearer sounds in their own speech. What’s more, those who can hear and form speech sounds clearly will be better prepared to segment and blend letter sounds when learning to read and write later on. An effective way to help children develop auditory discrimination is to take them outside where they will be able to hear a wide variety of sounds, both natural and man-made.

If children are to become effective life-long learners they will need to have the ability to concentrate, maintain attention, retain and recall information. Again, the outdoor area is a great place to practise these essential listening skills. The outdoor space provides opportunities to play games that involve listening to, processing and carrying out instructions, such as traffic lights, follow my leader, Simon says and hide and seek.

Music, movement and games are essential for developing an awareness of sounds in language. Children who have the space to bang out a beat, sing rhymes and dance in a circle will have a much greater awareness of rhythm, rhyme and alliteration, and as a consequence will have better phonemic awareness, which is essential for blending and segmenting sounds when reading and writing.

Appeal to the children’s imaginations and get them talking by setting up small world fairy scenes in the garden, planting strange and unusual objects for them to discover and setting up fantasy role-play situations. Use natural scenery to provide a backdrop for recalling and re-enacting stories, creating small world scenes and role-playing.

White flowers

Reading and writing are not only possible indoors. Make phonics fun by playing active games with letters and sounds. Hide letters in the shrubbery, decorate fences, walls and floors with the alphabet, sound out action words and race to find the correct letter. Teach children about the purpose of print by setting up Easter egg trails and scavenger hunts. Make both story and information books freely available in the outdoor area by setting up cosy shelters and reading corners with pop-up tents, picnic blankets and outdoor beanbags.

Help children develop the physical skills they need to be able to hold a pencil and write by setting up activities that involve dexterity and fine motor control. Tie ribbons to railings for weaving, build snow-people and make marks in sand, fill buckets with water and use large paint brushes to paint the walls. Give children a reason to write by putting notepads and pencils in builder’s belts and leaving post-it notes next to a role-play telephone box. Furthermore, leave small whiteboards, drywipe pens and playground chalks lying around for children to make marks, draw pictures and write.


Children need a solid foundation upon which to base their future learning. This involves the development of a range of fundamental skills that that are best taught through an active, playful and social curriculum. The outdoor environment is the ideal setting for helping children learn these early skills because it provides space for physical movement and exploration of a wide range of natural and man-made phenomena, together with freedom to indulge in noisy interactive play.

Further Reading

The new series Developing Early Skills Outdoors by Marianne Sargent are packed full of outdoor activity ideas for helping children develop early skills and a fundamental understanding of basic concepts. The books also contain advice about planning, organising and assessing outdoor learning.