Dr. Velvet Cooley, pictured with student Zander, says spending time outdoors is proven to have a calming effect, especially as we consider the pandemic aftermath.
After two years of COVID-19 disruptions, this summer it may be more important than ever to explore the outdoors with young children.
Chief Operating Officer of the Mid-Columbia Children’s Council (MCCC) Dr. Velvet Cooley said spending more time outdoors is proven to have a calming effect and enhance mental health, even for young children.
“As far as learning outcomes, being outdoors promotes curiosity,” she said. “When you are outside, a child has more freedom and you can let the child go. For instance, they might find a stick and you can ask, ‘can you write your name’? They might have more fun than doing it that with a pen and paper. You aren’t forcing the learning. It’s happening naturally.”
Dr. Cooley said research supports how their Tygh Valley Head Start site is making a difference. Children in the program spend almost 100% of their school days outside. At the end of the spring 2020-21 year, the outdoor classroom had 80% of children meeting or exceeding expectations in literacy compared to the overall of 77% of children enrolled in MCCC. In math, 90% of the outdoor classroom children met or exceeded expectations, compared to 77% of the overall children enrolled.
Children at Tygh Valley take naps in tents, eat outside and learn out outdoors – often through the natural elements around them.
“When it comes to math skills – maybe the child starts collecting rocks, counting and sorting – big rocks to little rocks,” she said. “It might not be an activity you planned but it’s that opportunity to foster natural curiosity.”
Dr. Velvet Cooley encourages student Zander to compare the different sizes and shapes of the rocks. Dr. Cooley has researched the mental and physical health benefits to young children learning outdoors.
Tygh Valley Head Start teacher Chelsey Hauser, who works with three to five year olds, said many of their families enjoy spending time outdoors when they aren’t at school.
“It makes a big difference because I see how excited the kids are about learning,” Hauser said.
Hauser said they do a garden study every year, with this year’s beds planted with pumpkins, tomatoes, carrots and peppers.
“The kids help get the gardens ready,” said Hauser. “The first thing they see is worms and we talk about how the worms contribute to the soil. After that, we saw the kids going around looking for worms to put into the garden.”
Dr. Cooley has also found nature to have a calming effect on challenging behaviors – some of which were amplified during the pandemic, when caregivers and children found themselves cooped up indoors and more isolated.
“When you are outside, you feel more comfortable not wearing a mask,” she said. “It’s nice to have the opportunity to be playing outside and feel safe. When children would be feeling more frustrated or not getting along with their peers, the minute you go outside, it appears to go away.”
Dr. Cooley also looked at outcomes during the pandemic across MCCC and found physical development was down, including gross and fine motor skills.
“Children can’t throw a ball or when they walk, they aren’t balancing as well as they used to,’ she said. “It’s been interesting to observe.”
It is another reason Dr. Cooley is encouraging families and care givers to get outside this summer and ask children to examine their surroundings – from bugs to birds, or even a flower coming out of the sidewalk.
“We know having exposure to nature makes you happier,” Dr. Cooley shared. “It’s in the way we are built as humans.”
“You can simply take a hike on the sidewalk,” she said. “It doesn’t have to involve traveling to a park – just go right outside your door.”
If you are a provider, Tygh Valley offers advice to other Head Start or preschool classrooms that want to explore outdoor learning. Contact Dr. Cooley at firstname.lastname@example.org or 541.386.2010.