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Exploring Outdoor Learning in Early Childhood Education

  • 17 Pages
  • Published On: 18-12-2023


Evidence suggests Froebel and Montessori practice have been at the center of learning, especially in early childhood learning and education, since its early days. This paper will focus on Froebel and Maria Montessori’s concepts of outdoor learning, both past and how they are useful in today’s learning for children age 0-8 years. It will provide an understanding of the practices and philosophies of Friedrich Froebel and Montessori. Therefore, the work will show the key pioneers in early childhood education and their pedagogical implications for current practice and policy.

Comparison of Froebel and Montessori Past on Learning Outdoor

Long before the introduction of forest schools in the United Kingdom and before the UK government invested significant amount of capital in early year learning to construct outdoor classrooms and learning settings, individuals like Montessori and Froebel advocated for outdoor learning (Feez, 2010). Montessori suggested that practitioners should come up with ways to ‘bring the outside in and the inside out’ (Feez, 2010). Montessori promoted providing children connections between nature observations and learning opportunities about animals and plants within their immediate surroundings or nursery outside environment. Montessori suggested that practitioners should provide children with the opportunity to develop unique relations with their surroundings, to love the winds, the storms, to experience moments such as running and playing outside with others while it is snowing (Feez, 2010). Similarly, Froebel also constructed his philosophies on the concept and value of learning outside. Froebel himself enjoyed childhood education in the 1780s in Germany where he was born and learned languages and mathematics. He was highly passionate about learning in nature, outside the classroom (Froebel, 1915). He viewed outdoor play as an intrinsic method for children to learn, grow and develop (Froebel, 1915).


Froebel’s belief was that knowledge, beauty and life were intertwined (Gray, 2018). Because of his belief in the relevance of outdoor learning for children, he greatly influenced the approaches used during children’s early years in outdoor education. In the 18th centry, children started to be viewed as individuals who have their rights, unlike in the previous years where society looked at them as little or miniature beings (Gray, 2018). This thinking transformation was highly influenced by pedagogy and political agenda which played a big role in changing how people viewed outdoor learning. Froebel’s work started to enlighten people about the importance of play in a child’s early years learning and education by emphasizing the need to provide children with both outdoor and indoor play opportunities (Gray, 2018).

Froebel believed that humans (adults) grant time and space to young animals and plants because they know that this supports the laws and requirements that when they are left alone, they grow and develop well (Gray, 2018). Similarly, Froebel believed that children should be given the necessary time and space, based on their nature, treated correctly and allowed to use their independence. That is, children should not be spoilt with too much assistance. These Froebel’s beliefs are similar to Montessori’s of Freedom and liberty, which is allowing the child to have choices and protecting their rights, observation, absorbent mind, providing them with didactic materials and a prepared environment (Goldschmied and Jackson, 2004). Both Maria Montessori and Friedrich Froebel believed that children should have the freedom to outdoor and indoor play, provided with the necessary apparatus and allowed to experiment and explore the physical world. This way, they will learn how the world works, how things are created, the properties of electric light, gas and water, the frost, mud, sunshine and rain. These early childhood theorists believed that children should be free to create through imaginative play and fantasy and through real handing of bricks, wood and clay (Isaac, cited in Graham, 2008).

Even though there is a similarity in the sense of both individuals promoting outdoor learning, Montessori’s recommendation was unique because he proposed a form of early education that was based on horticulture and gardening, which were referred to as educative gardens located in special schools (Goldschmied and Jackson, 2004). In these gardens, the plots were prepared and planted with unique botanical variety, providing children with a learning opportunity of how they can nurture and care for different flowers and shrubs. Montessori’s idea was for teachers to provide children with opportunities to learn different gardening skills and knowledge which could help them in their future lives as a means to earn and survive (Goldschmied and Jackson, 2004). Similarly, Froebel believed that outdoor play provided children with both enjoyment and challenging situations and that when these rich, secure and safe and challenging outdoor play opportunities are provided, children’s learning, growth and development are supported much effectively. According to Froebel, it was important to provide children with learning and development areas which are carefully planned and where purposeful play could be implemented through child initiated activities that are adult led (Wasmuth, 2020). Froebel believed that outdoor learning settings offered children the opportunity to develop and learn knew knowledge, allowing them to understand their surroundings and the world in a richer context compared to indoor learning (Wasmuth, 2020).

Montessori formulated her ideas concerning the importance of allowing children to experience nature (Caprara and Macchia, 2020). According to Montessori, immersing a child in nature is the best means of invigorating them. Montessori believed that it was utterly important to place a child’s soul in contact with their surroundings, with creation, to enable them to lay up for themselves treasures from the educating living forces of nature. In Montessori’s own unique language, she promoted the need for actual experiences by children, embedded in their early years (Caprara and Macchia, 2020).

Montessori organized her concepts concerning the need for children to be in contract with the environment outside the classroom into different principles (O'Donnell, 2012). She believed that children should be initiated into making their own observations concerning different life phenomena. Additionally, Montessori claimed that children should be initiated into animals and plant life in their care and be made to understand that those animals and plants which are under their care directly depend on them. The third principal of Montessori stated that children should be initiated into virtues of confident expectation and patience, which are important types of life philosophies and faith. Lastly, Montessori believed that children should be inspired by their feelings for and desire of nature and be allowed to follow the natural human development and growth (O'Donnell, 2012).

On the other hand, Froebel was of the notion that outdoor learning entailed dynamic living and learning settings with the ability to change and where adults and children could interact with the surroundings or environment. Froebel believed that outdoor learning enabled children to experience things through movement and the chance to express their feelings through creating connections with others and their world and also using role play. Like Montessori, Froebel’s ideas were based on the concept that the outdoor learning environment was a place where children had endless possibilities to create and experience new things (Wasmuth, 2020). As a result, he played a critical role in providing creative and quality outdoor learning settings for early year education. He promoted the provision of high quality outside learning environments which were achieved through unified visions and clear values and beliefs in improving children’s learning and development. According to Froebel, it was important to create an environment where children could be engaged with open ended materials of play, though this was quite different to making children do gardening work by Montessori, under the supervision of adults inspiring and facilitating the play process through informed interaction and considerate discussion (Wasmuth, 2020).

Froebel actually identified the support which adults could give to children during play. According to Froebel, children who noticed the significance of the support by adults also found the same awareness which adults had, which allowed the knowledge instilled in them to germinate or grow, making the children develop, unlike those who failed to see the relevance of the support by adults (McMillan, 1930). According to Froebel, it was necessary to fill the environment with as much imaginable resources as possible and also have sensitive and imaginative adults around who could enhance the outdoor play experience. Froebel promoted the creation of beautifully designed outdoor spaces which could lead to highly mundane play (McMillan, 1930).

He also suggested the presence of receptive and supportive adults who could help change or transform the learning spaces and outdoor settings as well as sustain the outdoor play (Joyce, 2012). According to Froebel, adults played an important supportive role in planning the play activities and providing children sufficient time to play allowing them to discover, and also allowing sensitive discussions which could promote the process of learning and child development. Froebel highlighted the importance of having knowledgeable adults around who could make children’s learning and process of development effective (Joyce, 2012). According to Froebel, such learning environments resulted in long term social and intellectual benefits, especially when children were exposed to high-quality play that was based on experiences made in spaces or settings that were supported by qualified, skilled and highly supportive adults (Joyce, 2012).

Although some of Montessori’s ideas were strange, her schools continued to provide little plots where children cultivated and cared for their plants. Children were given the chance to care for plants in the plots and for pigeons in nursery school allowing them to experience the delight and joy of hatched fledglings (Wentworth and Wentworth, 2013). Meanwhile for Froebel, it was important for practitioners to link both outdoor and indoor learning spaces that provide children the necessary freedom to move and tools to play. Froebel supported providing children with seamless curriculums between outdoor and indoor learning settings, even though they are quite challenging to establish and because these programs can be affected by limited time, the lack of space or bad weather (Joyce, 2012).

Comparison of Froebel and Montessori Present on Learning Outdoor

Today, almost everyone is familiar with the word Kindergarten and that this terms standards for children’s garden, Friedrich Froebel’s invention. Today’s practitioners who know Froebel concepts and how they are applicable in early childhood education are aware of how useful his concepts are in young children’s education. Froebel provided so much in nurturing children both indoors and outdoors. It is important to understand how Froebel’s concepts, valuable and deep awareness work in daily outdoor practice (Tovey, 2007). There are Montessori and Froebel inspired policy provisions that support outdoor learning to ensure that children are in contact with their surroundings or nature. This has helped to ensure that children appreciate and understand the harmony, the beauty and the harmony in nature. For Montessori, it is utterly vital for a child’s psychical development and growth to be done when they in contact with the environment and creation. To support this Montessori’s idea and belief, early education practitioners are also moving children outdoors. Just like Montessori, teachers today are working to ensure that children go through nature education, making sure that classrooms have outdoor environment extensions (Morrison, 2007).

Today, there are numerous Nursery Schools which are Froebel’s ideas based. Practitioners now construct these schools, primary schools and nursery schools, in fields. This has allowed them to have classrooms which are open into outdoor spaces. Additional family clinics are also provided in the schools to ensure that both the health and educational needs of children are met. During the construction of these schools, teachers, and the children’s families and the constructors work together to ensure that children’s needs are met according to the principals of Froebel and other early education theorists such as Susan Isaacs and Hadow MacMillan (Palmer, 2020). Together these theorists joined the Kindergarten movement started by Froebel (Tovey, 2007).

Practitioners are now working to create natural learning programs and Montessori Schools that have been carefully designed environments and academic papers. With these impressive designs, schools are now offering creative and imagination inspiring indoor and outdoor learning settings for children. One of the things which are now being done by early education schools is hiring landscape architects or designers to beautify the learning environments and create attractive gardens where children can enjoy learning outside. In these settings, children are engaged in gardening and spend time outside in nature (Morrison, 2007).

Many practitioners today continue to be influenced by the early education concepts by Froebel. Many of today’s early education teachers are also Froebel trained. Nursery schools in the modern world are constructed based on Froebelian Principals (Bruce, 2012). For instance, first, they listen to children and adhere to their fascinations. Practitioners now work to ensure that children’s choices are respected. They also build and develop on what adults and children already know to provide a deeper understanding and learning to the children. During the construction of nursery schools, practitioners consider the families and community where they are in, valuing them and placing their needs at center stage (Knight, 2013).

Early education teachers today are trained to remain mindful of their environment and seek out what children can learn from it. One area that teachers now focus on during their lessons to children, thanks to the principals by Froebel, is observation. Observation has now become a central part of the learning process with children often taken outside the classroom to observe different things in their surroundings, like the sun, the clouds, the mountains and so on (Tovey, 2013). Practitioners are now aware and make use of Froebel’s knowledge that children are able to learn and be successful when they are engaged in purposeful and real tasks rather than simply being immersed into the theoretical bit of learning (Tovey, 2013).

For those who are Montessori inspired, children are usually taken to trips where they explore different natural and scenic sites like hills, mountains, lakes, wildlife parks and game reserves (Palmer, 2020). As a result, nature is kept a vital part of children’s learning. Additionally, children are asked to grow plants in the outdoor gardens and in fields. They are allowed to care for the plants, which brings them closer to nature as they love the plants under their care and come to understand that the plants are dependent on them. Other activities which teachers do with the children, which are based on Montessori’s recommendations are reading and being taught outside under trees. Children come to love this experience as they are taught using things in their surroundings. Teachers organize controlled outdoor movements and activities such as walking on a line. They are taught things like outdoor counters and numbers, nature cutting and collecting trays. Through such activities, children can cut flowers and gather treasures on their trays (Palmer, 2020).

Even though this is the case, it has not been easy for teachers as many still find it difficult to see and apply outdoor spaces as all-encompassing and unique learning settings. However, there are those who have succeeded in establishing gardens outside the classroom buildings with direct access to classrooms. Small unused gardens in school compounds are now being converted into learning gardens. This has given children the chance to develop small gardens where they can plant flowers and other types of plants and take care of small wildlife (Read, 2006). Children are now engaged in projects which involve teachers and their parents. It has become even easier for children whose parents have the knowledge and skills of gardening, pond- making and caring for animals. Everyone gathers around the projects and give out excellent ideas for the children to implement. As a result, children are provided with a rich learning environment and an opportunity to connect with their community (Read, 2006).

Some other activities which children are now engaged in which illustrate Froebel’s concepts include digging with their parents in the gardens. They also get the chance to use other materials found in the environment and grow interest to learn more, for instance about dead animals whose bones they found. They can also take part in activities such as packing and labelling their finds in the gardens, engage in washing of bowls (Knight, 2013). For Montessori, other activities can include setting counters and numbers at the beach. Here children can learn to appreciate nature as they play and learn simultaneously. During the Montessori inspired beach activities, children can collect jellyfish, octopus, shells and other tiny sea animals and number or assign letters and names to the items. Teachers are now taking Montessori-inspired learning activities outdoors. Activities like Montessori-inspired ocean mathematics and beach language learning makes learning interesting for the children. Additionally, science activities like Montessori floats and sinks are some of the great outdoor activities which teachers do today (Baker, 2012). Practitioners also engage children with natural items and rocks during outdoor lessons and activities where they can count and name these items as well as look for small farm animals and garden plants. Additionally, teachers can organize picnics where courtesy and grace are taught to them outdoors, teaching children how to behave while also enjoying the natural ambience (Baker, L., 2012). Other Montessori inspired activities which children do today in nurseries include working outside on specially constructed children’s outdoor work stations. In these work stations, children take part in sorting animals, taking environment photographs and washing their items. Early education practitioners, with the help of other professionals like landscape experts and architects work together to create outdoor learning settings where children can both enjoy, learn and develop (Baker, 2012).

Today’s teachers also engage children in outdoor singing activities, using songs known as Froebel’s mother songs. These are rhyme songs which are crafted carefully to chime and have illustrations that bring emphasize good morals. As the children engage in such songs, they enjoy the learning and are educated about how children in society should behave. Their thinking is also stimulated through such songs. As Ouvry (2012) point out, the Froebelian’s singing-everywhere approach, with bouncing and clapping rhymes allows children to develop a close bond and relationship with adults. The singing, clapping and dancing approach stimulates children’s thinking abilities and learning becomes interesting as they develop their language and problem solving abilities.

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In the process of carrying out such activities, children and their parents can also take part in constructive discussions about their finds illustrating Froebel’s purposeful learning (Koops, 2012). Such activities that are done under the supervision of adults and their support, as well as the discussions held about animals, the environment and finds can lead to life memories that are shared in both inside the classroom and outdoors (Koops, 2012). With such meaningful and real activities, children’s observational skills, language, mathematical concepts, and feelings about things that happened in the past are enriched. The outdoor garden experiences made possible by Froebel’s concepts of early education provide children the opportunity to improve their social and personal awareness. Therefore, in today’s contemporary world, Froebel’s concepts continue to build children’s understanding of their society and community. It also develops their ideas, interests and motivations (Bruce, 2012).


The importance of outdoor play has been emphasized by both of these theorists. While Froebel came up with his Kindergarten movement (the kids garden) where small plots are provided by nursery schools to allow children to plant and take care of small animals, Maria Montessori encouraged providing outdoor activities and tools, like outdoor stations where children could play, experiment and explore the world. Both of these theorists encouraged providing children with the necessary freedom to explore and interact with their surroundings to learn and absorb the knowledge of nature and connect with their surroundings and community. Both of these theorists claim that although it is important to provide adult support, this should be purposeful and have meaningful discussions. This encourages them to continue learning from the support and knowledge being offered. Additionally, outdoor learning and activities allowed for children are interesting, boosts their self-confidence and improves their language skills and mastery of what teachers are teaching them, for instance, the mathematics problem-solving skills. While in the past the freedom given to children to explore independently outdoors was quite limited and pioneered or encouraged by a handful of early childhood education theorists like Froebel and Montessori, many schools in the contemporary world use Froebel’s and Montessori’s concepts in their institutions, starting from landscaping to the curriculum, with outdoor play settings made accessible from classrooms. Teachers have ensured that gardening, outdoor play stations, beach activities, touring nature and other seeing weather are part of children’s learning and development.


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