Arid Environment

The best classroom for children is nature

Many parents don’t realise that under-fives need about three hours of outdoor play daily – nor that older children need an hour a day.

This is according to the psychotherapist and author of the 15-Minute Parenting series Joanna Fortune, who is set to talk on May 10 at Fota Island Resort, Co Cork, on the importance of outdoor play for children’s growth and development.

The talk is the first phase in a convention on outdoor play planned by Gillian Powell, Averil Keane and Ollie Sheehan – all three have worked in the early years’ sector and share a passion for outdoor learning.

Inspired by the early 20th century words of nursery educator Margaret McMillan, ‘The best classroom and richest cupboard are roofed only by the sky’, they’ve set up a not-for-profit organization Early Years Outdoor Learning Convention.

Fortune says outdoor play promotes children’s physical and emotional development. “In physical terms, they strengthen and refine fine and gross motor skills by running, jumping, climbing, wriggling, falling, picking things up, digging for worms or balancing on a wall.”

She says time in nature resets an over- or under-stimulated brain. “It allows us all to reset our busy brain and just breathe in the air, hear different sounds, smell different scents. This natural sensory engagement, offered outdoors, helps to calm, soothe and regulate children.”

Joanna Fortune

She sees adequate time outdoors reducing stress and anger, while improving mood and behaviour. “When children feel connected to nature they’re more connected to the world outside of them. This is important in strengthening their sense of self and inner working model – their view of self, others and the world around them.”

Time outdoors nurtures children’s psyche because they learn about taking risks and independence. “They learn to try new things that may or may not work out for them. They learn it’s worth trying nonetheless. This all helps to build confidence and self-esteem.”

Powell, Keane and Sheehan want to create a better world by nurturing a love for our natural environment. They want to draw on what it can teach us so as to help children grow up confident, curious and respectful of nature and each other. Fortune says time outdoors helps “children learn about and deepen their respect for nature and climate, including the insects and animals who live there”.

With some children “needing a reason to go out”, Fortune recommends parents join them outdoors – and perhaps assign them a section of garden in which they plant seeds they’ll then want to care for.

  • ‘From the Outside In’, Joanna Fortune, Tuesday, May 10 (7.30pm), Fota Island Resort. Book at

Tips for outdoor play:

  • Make your walk a nature-spotting orienteering activity: for example, kids tick off when they find a brown leaf, acorn, conker, tallest tree, five birds.
  • Make skipping fun: take turns where two turn the rope as a third jumps in the middle, holding paper cup of water – whoever has most water left at end wins.
  • Have a garden treasure hunt – with the treasure seeds to sow some fruit/veggie plants together.
  • Get outdoors with them. Play tag/chasing or draw hopscotch boards with pavement chalk. Encourage exploring.


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