Outdoor Classrooms and Their Positive Impact on Behavior

Often when I connect with my fellow professional colleagues, there is one topic which
always gets discussed, the behaviors of children. The negative and challenging behaviors are what gets discussed most often and how it affects the classroom dynamic, the other children, the relationships with the parents, and of course the provider’s mental health. Whether I am participating in a local training, an online forum, or even traveling across the country to national conferences, this subject is constantly on the forefront of conversation. This topic affects us all, no matter where we are in the United States (and I might even go so far as to say the world.)

In 2018 I completed a mini research study which set out to answer the question, in what ways can an outdoor classroom promote prosocial behavior?

What did I find out? Well, ultimately my findings confirmed by belief which is… if more of Maine’s early care and childhood educators utilized an outdoor classroom, there would be a decrease in the number of educators reporting challenging behaviors. Therefore, reducing the number of children expelled in early care and education programs.

Maine conducted a study in 2015 around challenging behaviors in early childhood programs and found 92% of educators reported having at least one child with a difficult behavior. In a quarter of those cases, the educators stated these children were removed from the program. (Smith & Granja, 2017)

The graph below features the incident* trends in my family child care program from 2014-2018. The decrease in peer to peer incidents and the increase in self-sustained incidents appear to show a relationship between the amount of time children spent inside vs. outside.

*Incident reports are written anytime a child’s skin is broken, or other physical mark occurred, regardless whether the incident is due to a peer to peer interaction or it was self-inflicted.

Rates of Incidents Over Time

From 2014-2018, the overall mix of development ages was relatively the same. There
were always 6-8 preschoolers, 4-6 toddlers, and 1-2 infants. Two of the three teachers were present all years. The third staff member was hired in 2015.

I started with charting the incident reports. As I reviewed the information, I decided to
group the incidents into 4 categories: inside with a peer, outside with a peer, inside with self, and outside with self. Most of the peer to peer incidences occurred from biting.

The years of 2014 and 2015 showed similar results, with 85% of incidents occurring with a peer inside.



Prior to 2015, my program’s primary purpose for bringing children outdoors was simply
for gross motor. The children in my program would be outside 45-60 minutes each morning, and another 30-45 minutes each afternoon (totaling approximately 15% of their day.) By the end of 2015, the children were outdoors upwards of 70% of their day.


In 2016, there was a 20% drop in incidents which occurred inside with a peer, and peer to peer incidents which occurred outside only increased by 14%. In 2017, the inside with a peer stayed stagnant, account for 65% of the total incidents.


In late 2017, my program made a pedagogy shift. We were allowing more risky play to
occur and focused our annual training around outdoor play. We incorporated a more natural playscape into our outdoor classroom, thereby naturally increasing the children’s access of risky play.


In 2018, this is where the largest drop of inside with a peer, incidences occurred. Though, the outside with peer drastically increased. If you combine the two categories it is equal to 2017’s data, and down fifteen points from 2016, down twenty-one points from 2015, and twenty-five points from 2014.

Every afternoon we have the children gather together after rest time to read a story and talk about the “best part of their day.” This is a routine part of the day which has been occurring since 2016. It ensures all the children are in the same space to allow a snack to be prepared. The learning objective is to build social-emotional skills (turn taking, public speaking) and higher cognitive thinking (memory recall events, understand passing of time, expand verbal skills.) The teachers also use this exercise to help plan future activities. Every child is asked (regardless of their age.) Even the infants babble a few statements!
Best Part of Our Day

These particular observations occurred when the children were spending less time outside, due to the colder winter weather. I tracked the children’s responses over the course of one week. An overwhelming majority of the children (and one day it was unanimous,) stated the best part of their day was outside. They typically did not give any specific detail simply, “outside.” It’s important to note sometimes even when the children said an inside activity, it related to something which occurred outside. For example, one child said the best part of her day was, “napping, because I was so tired from playing outside.”

A recent study in a Florida kindergarten looked at a specific lesson which occurred at the same time each day for 6 weeks. The researchers observed the children in both an indoor and outdoor classroom. The data showed fewer observed instances where a child was off task in the outdoor classroom. The researchers also found the children ad to be redirected less in the outdoor classroom. Both teachers report the children appeared happier during the outdoor lessons. (Largo-Wight, et. al., 2018)


I encourage everyone to jump on board and consider moving (at least parts) of your day outside! Need some ideas on the how?!? Check out my blog post on how to transition to an outdoor classroom!



Largo-Wight, E., Guardino, C., Wludyka, P. S., Hall, K. W., Wight, J. T., & Merten, J. W. (2018). Nature contact at school: The impact of an outdoor classroom on children’s well-being. International Journal of Environmental Health Research, 28(6), 653-666. doi:10.1080/09603123.2018.1502415

Smith, S. and Granja, M.R. (2017). The Voices of Maine’s Early Care and Education Teachers: Children with Challenging Behavior in Classrooms and Home-based Child Care. New York: National Center for Children in Poverty, Mailman School of Public Health, Columbia University






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