Please enable JavaScript.  This webapp requires JavaScript to work.

Naturally Nurtured Curiosity – Tips for learning outside the classroom

by Chris Holland on September 30

Let’s face it, it can be pretty stressful doing learning outside – and much of the stress comes before we’ve even got out of the door! What, with risk assessments, unpredictable weather, lack of appropriate clothing, ratios, literacy and numeracy requirements, behavioural considerations, there’s enough to put anyone off. Oh, and now there are restrictions on the outdoor spaces we have available to us as students and teachers, due to COVID, with classes social distancing and bubbling, etc.

So how do we help our children make sense of the world they live in? How will they know that everything we see around us comes from nature, the air we breathe is dependent on the oceans and green things, and that pretty much everything that grows comes from soil which comes from rocks.

Evolutionary theory tells us that without an incredibly long line of ancestors, stretching way back in time to some alive slime in a puddle, we would not be here today, whatever job, or role in society we end up fulfilling.

This incredibly complex world we share with millions of other species is an interconnected web of life, and we humans, and all our interactions, are part of that wonderful system of cycles and rhythms. In fact, I was fascinated to discover in the book 10% human, by Alanna Collen, that we are more bacteria than human and are affected hugely by the lives of tiny creatures within and on us! We are a world for bacteria with thousands of habitats and niches. We have so much to understand, even as adult humans, about the world, that I think we can only do the best we can with what we’ve learnt so far, and share our insight with our younger generations. One of the best books I have come across recently to share the subject of this paragraph with children is Tiny Creatures, by Nicola Davies.

Nature and Play

As we all know there is so much to learn from being outside. Nature, after all, is the ultimate teacher and there are so many benefits to the mind, body and spirit from being outside.

And what is the best way for most of us to learn? Through play. Mammalian youngsters learn many of the skills they need in life through playful interactions with siblings, adults and the world around them. I think it is vital that our children are offered the same opportunities to develop their whole selves by giving them safe, natural settings to explore, outdoors. But who am I to say that?

Allow me to introduce myself with a little story about learning through play. My name is Chris Holland, and I decided to become an environmental educator when I came upon a book called Sharing Nature with Children, while doing a degree in Environmental Science in 1992. In the book, by Joseph Cornell, there were many simple games and activities that developed understanding of ecological principles. These activities were playful, and suitable for people of almost any age. In the book Joseph also described what he called Flow Learning, a way to encourage people to enter a learning journey, starting with an engaging activity.

At the risk of teaching grannies to suck eggs, teenagers how to use a mobile device or badgers to dig burrows, I would like to share a few tips and tricks, games and activities to help you nurture the curiosity in your students and help you feel more confident in creating an exciting, investigative curriculum, based on my experience.

Know the dangers and awaken curiosity

One of the most common problems I come upon when delivering INSET is that many teachers do not know their plants – which are safe to touch/eat/smell compared to those which aren’t. This is common sense that is being lost… like the lost words from the dictionary – and so children are growing up not knowing what is safe and what is not. In every problem is a solution and this is a great opportunity to involve the local elders or experts in your community – ask someone knowledgeable to come and do a simple plant walk in your school grounds – for you and the children so that you can be aware of your plant neighbours and feel safe with the knowledge of what is growing nearby.

If we know the plants, we can let the children explore without worry, but with awareness, and children are wired up to learn this way.  They are naturally curious, and don’t mind if us adults don’t know the answers; in fact, they love it when adults don’t know everything and say ‘I don’t know, let’s find out together’.

Children have a vast capacity for learning about hazards and beneficial plants. I know of many four and five year olds who have a much greater knowledge of plants, and garden birds, than many urban primary teachers, purely because the children have been introduced to the plants by their parents – have a look on ‘foraging for kids’ group on facebook for many cute videos of young walking plantopeodeias!

So, going back to safety for a moment, one of the things we learn from Maslow’s pyramid of human needs is that people need to feel safe and settled, fed and watered before they can be curious in a relaxed way.

So it’s important for us adults to feel confident in ourselves too, to enable the learning. If we do the risk/benefit analysis, then we know we’ve done the paperwork, we can relax, the children relax and we can play and be curious.

Use games and stories to energise

Childhood passions are things that all children do to learn… and there is such a range of these, it would be the subject of another article…with chase and hiding games are a firm favourite for many. There are so many things to learn through these games, such as agility, awareness, stillness, size and volume of hiding space, colours, outlines…and all the serendipity of noticing things in the hiding spaces.

A favourite game in my sessions is Eagle’s Eye. It’s like hide and seek, but different! The story of the game is an eagle is going to land on a perch. There is one eagle and everyone else is an animal. When the eagle ‘lands’ it shouts out a number between five and fifteen, and shuts its eyes, everyone else has to go and hide, but has to be able to see a part of the eagle with one eye from where they are hiding. When the eagle opens their eyes to look for the animals, they have to keep one foot in place (stay on the perch, they cannot walk around). The eagle names the people they can see. If playing with older children, the caught ones can be sent out like robots to check behind trees etc if there are people hiding there, by giving precise directions. After some time the eagle invites those they can’t see/find to “come out now!” Those that hide closest and remain unseen are the best hiders in that round. It’s a great game for learning that even those close to us have a different perspective.

For humans of any ages, so much of how we see the world depends on the stories we hear and the games we then play. Here is a simple creation story and activity that invites curiosity and connection – I heard this story from an anthropologist friend who studied in Papua New Guinea:

Once upon a time a race of rainbow people came to the earth. In that time earth was barren, only rocks and water, no life. There was no food. The rainbow people became hungry and weak. And then one of the rainbow people suggested they all turned into different kinds of living beings, so they could nurture and support each other. And so they did. And that is how all the plants and animals, fungi and bacteria, in the sea, on the land and in the air, came to be.

With a simple story like that to awaken curiosity, children can simply be asked to go and find a type of life they are interested in. They can draw, write or tell about it, and wonder how it supports another life form, and what supports it? What needs does it have? What is it doing? Why?…and with such questioning develops enormous understanding of the world around them.

Focus and listening

Catching a story is an art, and vital to keeping the fire of a child’s curiosity awake. It requires an adult to not have an agenda, and to really listen for a moment, and then maybe ask an open question to deepen the learning. Think of a child who excitedly comes to you saying ‘Look! I found this spider!’. There, in the palm of their little paw is a greenish spider. You may feel uneasy about spiders or love them, but for this child it is treasure. Rather than with aversion, or not having enough time to honour the great discovery, greet it with enthusiasm and interest like the treasure it is to the child: “Wow!” And wait a moment… the child will usually say something; listen… and you can ask a simple question like where did you find it, what colours can you see on it etc… and thus the ‘story’ is caught, the discovery stored in the brain and the fire of curiosity kept awake.

Sharing to harvest, reinforce and celebrate learning

Near to the end of my forest school sessions I usually have a sharing circle of some sort to see what was meaningful to each child during the session, and again, offer a moment to ‘catch a story’. One of my favourite tools for this is “dice time”. I have made several large dice about 5cmx5cm, from old posts, sanded smooth enough to write on, with a word on each face. Here are some examples of the words:

  • Found,
  • Liked
  • Remember
  • Disgusting
  • Felt
  • Played

We take it in turns to roll the dice and say a sentence that includes the word showing on the dice, while everyone else practices listening and learning about what other people like and how they see the world.

As someone who knows the value of song and music to develop group cohesion and connectedness, I also use call and response songs, to be jolly, inclusive and celebrate learning while encouraging oracy and confidence. An example of a simple repeated phrase is where the group sings “I went and found….”  And each person adds in two or three words like this:

  • I went ‘n’ found… ‘a wriggly worm’,
  • I went ‘n’ found… ‘a tiny black beetle’,
  • I went ‘n’ found… ‘a grey feather’
  • I want ‘n’ found… ‘some squidgy mud!’

Integrating and extending the learning

Another way to get the most out of developing an exciting and investigative curriculum indoors and out is, after the circle time, to simply ask an extending question to help integrate home- and lifelong learning, for example “What do you think you could do to find out more about spiders/bugs?” Or to keep the curiosity awake for next time you are outside together: “If you can, what would you like to play/find next time we come outdoors to learn?

And so that follows on nicely to a question I would like to ask you: what would you like to know more about on creative outdoor learning from me next time? I would love to know as it will inspire another article! Please email me at

And so on that final note, I am grateful you have been curious enough to read this far, and hopefully you found something in these words useful and inspiring.

For more free inspiration for outdoor learning please visit my facebook page and group.

And listen to my podcast with the FSF/Tapestry education team here!


Article edited 28.05.21.

Chris Holland

In 2000, Chris started Wholeland, becoming a self-employed outdoor educator, and in 2008 wrote his first nature connection guidebook, I LOVE MY WORLD, about which Michael Morpurgo has said is 'a must for all'. He is now a mixture of forest school leader, storyteller, musician and publisher, whose mission is to help people connect with nature, their own creative spirit and develop caring relationships with the people and world around them. You may also have seen him as a special guest didgeridoo player on CBBC - he runs Didgeridoo workshops around the UK, too. Chris set up Wild School East Devon for parents and toddlers in 2015, and delivers forest school sessions with KS1 and 2 children in a primary school in East Devon. His website at features a number of Storytelling, Natural Musicians and Nature connection courses for teachers and parents.