Connecting Themes and Curriculum to Outdoor Learning

When you think about outside time with your preschool, most teachers think… Finally, they get some energy out. But have you ever thought of how you can connect outside play with the theme and learning that goes on in your classroom? Have you thought about how outdoor learning can provide you with so many opportunities to introduce new concepts, build new skills, and help the children understand their world? Read on for ways of Connecting Themes and Curriculum to Outdoor Learning.

Research supports the connection of real life to the imagination of preschoolers in advancing development for young children (Doyle, 2014). Now you may be asking, well where do I begin? Once you have set up your outdoor learning space, and developed a consistent routine, it is time to expand your theme to include outdoor experiences.

Expanding Your Themes

Expanding your theme outdoors will not just benefit the children, but the teacher as well. When we extend learning we are helping children take ownership of their thinking, build their curiosity, and build their imagination (Dombro, et al., 2011). Think about your themes. For example, if your monthly theme or study is on Winter in the Woods, what better place to incorporate each area of your theme than outside?

Children on sleds - Connecting Themes and Curriculum to Outdoor Learning

Adding dramatic play outside and including items like snowshoes, mittens, scarfs and maybe even a sled can bring your theme alive. While these can be used inside, outside, the natural environment will expand your children’s thinking and allow them to build their imagination of how these items could be used.

painting the snow and making snow tracks

Bringing books outside with your theme concepts allows your children to connect nature to the books they are reading in the classroom. Likewise, art projects outdoors can include catching snowflakes… REAL snowflakes. Remembering that children are process focused, the concepts associated with your theme will become real to the children when they participate in the process. Read more about Powerful Interactions

Controlled Risky Play

stumbling block or stepping stone graphic

Many early childhood teachers are weary of risky play. However, research highlights that risky play is beneficial for children’s development (LeeMaster, et al., 2021). What is risky play? Risky outdoor play may involve challenges, heights, speed, and the potential for injury, but has been associated with increased physical activity levels, improved mental health, and social benefits.

Integrating Loose Parts

The integration of loose parts, or open-ended, unstructured materials, into play environments, has been associated with positive social behaviors, creativity, and improved problem-solving, confidence, and resilience.

integrating loose parts in outdoor play

As opportunities for risky play in early childhood are determined by adults, it is important that early educators understand both the risks and the opportunities of a controlled risky play environment. For example: if a child wants to build blocks outside, and then stand on them, what could happen? How might you help navigate their curiosity and imagination without hindering their risky play?

preschoolers engaging in risky play outdoors and Connecting Themes and Curriculum to Outdoor Learning

Teachers can navigate risky play through controlled supervision. With the example, a teacher may ask the children to come and get her before climbing on any structure they build. The teacher then, can monitor and supervise more intently. This allows children to build, add curiosity and imagination, and take their learning to a new level as well as Connecting Themes and Curriculum to Outdoor Learning.

Kathy Banks

Kathy Banks, Educator Support Specialist for Experience Early Learning, has 35 years of early childhood education experience. She has held various positions, including teacher, director, multi-site director, Head Start director, CCR&R, and QRIS Director. She currently adjuncts at several colleges and universities and continues to support and inspire educators through training and practical strategies. Kathy is working on her dissertation to complete her Ed.D. in Early Childhood Education. Kathy is also a nationally certified Family and Consumer Science Developmental Educator. Her experience and education make her a scholarly expert in child development and the realities and challenges of teaching and directing every day. 


Dombro, A., Jablon, J., & Stetson, C. (2011) Powerful Interactions. National Association for the Education of the Young Child. 

Doyle, E. (2014). Teacher tips on making real life connections come to life during story time. Teachstone. 

Spencer, R.A., Joshi, N, Branje, K, Murray, N, Kirk, S.F., & Stone, M.R. (2021). Early childhood educator perceptions of risky play in an outdoor loose parts intervention. AIMS Public Health. Mar 8;8(2):213-228. doi: 10.3934/publichealth.2021017. PMID: 34017887; PMCID: PMC8116185.