Overcoming Barriers to Outdoor Learning

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Most adults have fond memories of playing outside as a child. Whether it was playing in a park, their yard, or some other natural space, most of us can remember a time of unstructured play. For the most part, this play was unguided and potentially unsupervised by adults. Many of us remember building forts, climbing trees, exploring the woods, or simply riding our bikes for hours. However, many children these days do not have this luxury. They face multiple barriers to outdoor learning and outdoor play both at home and at school.

So what has changed? Why don’t we take our kids outside anymore? We all seem to have positive memories of times we spent outside as kids, yet we neglect to provide these opportunities for our own children. We know the value for our mental, physical, and emotional health of getting outside. Kids that have ample opportunity to play and be outside are more resilient, better regulated, and able to focus better when working indoors. We also know the risks of a sedentary indoor life. Yet we still continue to keep our children inside. Let’s start by exploring some of the barriers to outdoor learning that our students experience every day.

A group of 4 kids reading a books and learning outside.

Barriers to Outdoor Learning: Why We Don’t Take Our Kids Outside Anymore

The reasons why we keep our kids inside these days are diverse. Our reasoning could stem from fear, lack of time, shifting priorities, or a lack of feeling like we belong in the outdoors. However, this indoor and sedentary life is taking its toll on our children. All children have the right to get outside and experience the benefits of outdoor learning. Here are some of the barriers to outdoor education that kids are facing these days.


Fear seems to be one of the biggest reasons why kids are spending more and more time inside. However, it’s not the kids fear, but fear on the part of the adults in their lives. News, social media, and even listening to other adults, has created an epidemic of fear for the safety of our children and students. We hear stories on the news about kids drowning, being abducted, or being involved in accidents. No one wants that to happen to their own children or students, so they keep them safe and highly supervised at all times.

The reality of the situation is quite the opposite. The harms of an indoor sedentary life are far greater than the harms of outdoor play. Not being able to get outside means that children miss out on the opportunities to build resilience, problem-solving skills, and social skills that come with outdoor play and exploration. Children also miss out on the numerous benefits of getting outside to play and learn. 

Less Community Trust

Losing trust in our neighbours is a cycle that continues to feed itself the more that we stay indoors. The reality of spending more time indoors is that we spend less time getting to know the people in our neighbourhoods and communities. As a result of not going for walks, bike rides, or playing outside in the yard, we don’t get to know the people who live near us. If you live in an area where everyone has a garage, you may not even get to see your neighbours. The opportunities to say hello, build relationships with the people around us and really get to know our neighbors are lost simply because we don’t really come into contact with them. 

Since kids don’t grow up knowing their neighbours or the people in their school community, they don’t learn who they can trust in their community or even where to go and get help if they need it. As they aren’t out exploring in their community, they also don’t really know their community. Both parents and children alike feel less comfortable being outside and playing independently. As a result, they feel more comfortable being at home, where they feel comfortable and safe. 

Insurance Nightmares

If you run a school, independent outdoor program, club, or a daycare, your insurance may prevent you from doing a lot of the fun outdoor activities that you would like to do. If certain activities are allowed, there may be so many rules that it makes it almost impossible to participate in that activity. However, working with your insurance company to underwrite a policy and work through options can help to solve this problem and open more options for you. 

Too Many Things on the Go

I don’t know about you, but my school division has more and more expectations for both teachers and students each year. We are given arbitrary goals to reach, more and more testing to do, and more and more that we are expected to achieve. With all of these new incentives, initiatives, and things to do it makes it very difficult for teachers to have time to get their students outside. 

For families, other activities, sports, and commitments compete for time with unstructured free play. Many families feel pressure to put their kids in several structured activities each week. Kids move from a music lesson to soccer practice and then by the time they get home it’s homework time or bedtime. There just isn’t enough time left in the day for outdoor play.

Conflicting Priorities

With so many things on the go, it’s hard to prioritize outdoor time with your class or family. For schools, the pressure to reach benchmarks, complete testing, and cover the entire curriculum competes with time for fun and unstructured activities. For parents, homework, other activities, and even electronic devices compete for priority. With so many things vying for our attention, it’s little wonder that kids are not getting outside like they used to. 

Financial Barriers to Outdoor Learning

Access to the outdoors is a privilege that many people take for granted. Some people live in areas where access to green space requires a commute or the green space is unsafe to be in. For others, being able to afford the clothing and equipment necessary to get outside can be a burden. The financial barriers to outdoor education are very real and populations that need the benefits of getting outdoors the most may be unable to experience it. 

Not Feeling Like You Belong Outdoors

Another major barrier to outdoor education is the fact that some people don’t feel like they belong in the outdoors. There are many factors that affect this including:

  • advertising that features only white males participating in certain outdoor sports
  • not seeing yourself being represented in the outdoor space, either in marketing or when you actually visit the space 
  • not feeling safe in nature because of your race, gender, sexual orientation, body type, etc.
  • not having experiences with your family in outdoor activities
  • cultural stereotypes about who participates in outdoor activities
  • not having the financial access to the clothing/equipment that makes you look like you belong in a particular sport/activity

However, nature is a space where everyone should feel safe and like they belong. Marketing towards only certain populations as well as systemic racism and violence have created a very singular view of who belongs in nature and who doesn’t. The reality is that everyone is a part of nature and therefore has the right to be outside. 

A group of 5 kids sitting in a circle having a discussion outside

The Consequences of Living an Indoor Life

As a result of living an indoor life, there are some very real consequences that children are suffering from. Some of these consequences include:

  • losing our connection to nature
  • not feeling like we belong in our communities or in nature
  • less physical activity (leads to obesity, heart conditions, diabetes, etc.)
  • decrease in mental health
  • less resilience
  • less opportunities to build relationships with neighbors and peers
  • a general feeling of disconnection
A group of 3 girls outside

Overcoming These Barriers to Outdoor Learning

With all of these barriers to outdoor learning and getting outside, it makes it even more important that we fight for the right of all children to get outside. There are several things that we can do to help either overcome these barriers to outdoor education or at least make them more accessible to everyone. 

1. Make Getting Outside a Priority in Your School Schedule

Make getting outside part of your day or week in your class or with your school. As you start to get outside more, students will become more comfortable with spending time outdoors and seeing themselves as belonging outside.  

Ways to get outside regularly:

  • schedule outdoor time on your schedule each day or week
    • at our school, we have outdoor education classes for every student every second day on the schedule
    • some classes I know do outdoor reading time or outdoor physical education time every day
    •  our kindergartens do 1-2 hours of outdoor play every day
    • I know of some schools that spend the entire afternoon or morning outside every Wednesday
  • plan outdoor lessons such as walks, games, or nature activities
  • try something new like a school-wide outdoor activity (we have a small school and do an outdoor game once a month)

You can find some easy ways to get started here:

2. Get to Know Your Community

Take your students out into your community for walks, activities, or to visit some of the services that are available in your community. Becoming familiar with the town or neighborhood will help your students feel more comfortable getting outside in their community. Teach your students about where they can go if they need help. Also, take the time to be friendly with the members of your community. If the students see you interacting with the people that live around them in a friendly way they will feel more confident in spending time outside. 

On a recent walk with my kindergartens (we were out looking for numbers in the community), we came across two police cars parked near the village office. We were able to have a great chat with the police officers and they even showed us some of the numbers inside their vehicles! This was a great opportunity for the students to meet the police and understand that the police are here to help us if we need them. 

Some great ways to get to know your community are:

  • walking to nearby services or activities, such as libraries, swimming pools, etc.
  • going for walks in the community as a way of covering the curriculum (looking for numbers, mapping the community, etc.)
  •  visit local community services such as town offices, stores, and businesses to learn about them and the services that are offered in the community
  • visit local seniors homes to sing songs, do crafts, or just chat with the locals
  • mapping your community or spaces in your community

3. Have a Fantastic Risk Management System

Having a well-laid plan for managing risks will go a long ways to make your insurance company, your administrators, and your families feel safe and comfortable outdoors. Before you set out to do anything outside, ensure that you have laid the groundwork for keeping everyone safe and managing the risks of being outdoors. Your risk management plan should address the risks that may be present in your outdoor space. It should also include safety procedures for different incidences that make occur while outdoors. Find tools to help you create your risk management system in our, “Get Outside Tool Kit.”

4. Ensure That Financial Barriers Don’t Prevent Your Students From Getting Outside

Find ways to ensure that everyone is able to participate in your outdoor activities, regardless of their income. There are many grants in place that can help you get your students outside. Some of these grants are specific to creating school gardens or outdoor classrooms. There are also grants available for taking your students on outdoor trips or purchasing equipment for your programs. 

You may also wish to find ways to do a gear exchange or lending library. This will help to provide clothing and equipment to everyone at the school regardless of whether they simply left their ski pants on the bus (happens all the time), they are newcomers to your area, or they simply can’t afford to buy new clothing or equipment. Some ideas for ensuring everyone has access to warm clothing can be found here.

5. Celebrate Diversity Outside

Ensure that everyone feels welcome outside and sees themselves as being part of nature. Some ways that you can celebrate diversity outside are:

  • sharing examples of people from all races, genders, and body types that participate in outdoor activities
  • having diverse presenters or activity leaders for your activities or programs
  • finding stories that represent people/kids from diverse backgrounds participating in outdoor activities
  • ensuring that financial barriers don’t prevent families from participating in your programs or classes

6. Invite Families To Participate in Your Activities

Your school families will feel more comfortable getting outside if they understand what you are doing. Engaging your school families in outdoor activities is a great way to help them understand why you take learning outside as well as the benefits of outdoor learning for their kids. It might even provide parents with enough confidence to get outside more on their own. 

Some ways to encourage family engagement are:

  • have families come and help out with an outdoor activity or lesson
  • have families share an area of expertise with your class
  • have family engagement events that are outside
  • keep families informed about your activities through social media or online students portfolios

7. Advocate For Outdoor Learning

Be an advocate for your students, their well-being, and their right to get outside. Share with families, the community, and even the public what you are doing and why you get your students outside. The more people understand the benefits, the more they will take the time to get outside themselves. This will help to get the important stakeholders involved and on board with what you are doing. 

Post what you are doing on social media. Engage families in learning about the benefits of outdoor learning and why you take your students outside. The more you share, the more people will see the value in getting outside. 

A group of children working on outdoor writing.

Overcoming the Barriers to Outdoor Learning

The most important way that you can overcome the barriers to outdoor learning is to simply take the time to get outside with your students. If students are not able to get outside at home, why not make school a place where they can benefit from time outside. Make outdoor learning a priority in your schedule and make sure your students are prepared. You don’t need to start with a big project or epic field trip, simply taking time to read outside or play a game outdoors is a great way to start.

As teachers, we can create opportunities for our students to also form those fond memories of outdoor play and learning. I am here to help you get outside with your students. Whether you are new to outdoor learning or just looking for some fresh ideas, I would love to help you out. There are many ways that you can take your curriculum outdoors from lessons, to units, to journals, to art activities. There is no right or wrong way to do it, whatever works best for your teaching style and student needs. 

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