About » The Outdoor Classroom and the Science of Play

The Outdoor Classroom and the Science of Play


science-of-play-1Several years ago, Sacred Heart Preschool embarked on a large-scale overhaul of its educational beliefs, practices, and standards.  Though our mission remained, we shifted our practices from one-way teacher to student instruction to a child-centered, inquiry, play, and nature-based mindset. We recognized that the pervasive mentality of childhood as ‘something to be controlled and boxed-in’ was resulting in overly impulsive and under-prepared/-resourceful adolescents. Therefore, we leaned into the challenge of reimagining what “educating” meant, and what our new vision of education could be.

SHP believes wholeheartedly in the benefits of spending time in nature. We are blessed to have access to an abundance of nature on our playgrounds and across our beautiful 48-acre campus. There are many proven benefits to learning and playing in nature:


  • Spending time in nature keeps children’s minds fresh. It exposes them to varying situations where they are forced to learn and adapt to best fit themselves into the prevailing conditions. For instance, playing in uneven heights, conditions, and surfaces helps children to hone their coordination and balancing skills.
  • Nature provides the opportunity to identify and navigate risk, supporting the development of risk assessment.
  • Sustained time spent with nature has both mental and physical benefits:
    • It has been proven to improve mood and reduce depression and mental fatigue
    • Children who are involved in regular outdoor play benefit from increased flexibility and gross motor skills, as well as improved vision
    • Children who are exposed to the natural world experience a greater degree of self-control, peace, and discipline.




Working intentionally through our partnership with Bernheim Forest’s Children at Play Network and other community partners, Sacred Heart Preschool redesigned the outdoor environments to create a natural environment that continues to support our image of the child and our purpose as early childhood educators. What was once a prescriptive outdoor play space was transformed into a messy natural landscape in which children freely activate their senses and engage elements of nature that were not previously regarded as “learning opportunities.” Faculty and staff have seen the value and necessity in designing play spaces that support free play – that which is freely chosen, intrinsically motivated, and self-directed. We see the children connecting concepts across disciplines and inquiring organically without adult direction. The children are far more capable and confident than they were before.

Learn more about SHP's partnership with the Children at Play Network here.


“Sacred Heart Preschool is the perfect fit for our family. They are so dedicated to educating the whole child and provide wonderful hands-on experiences for our children. We get photos daily of our child participating in messy play, engaging in fine and gross motor activities, and lots of outdoor exploration. We love our school!”
-SHP Parents, Thomas and Katie


science-of-play-5Our outdoor patio became a Loose Parts Lab, holding boxes, tape, tubes, acorns, leaves, and anything the children felt inclined to create with. We added more loose parts, stumps, sticks, and logs to the vast green space on our playground and watched as the children became more creative and resilient, stronger communicators, and more capable and confident in assessing and navigating risk.  An evolution took place, not only for our students but for the adults as well – an understanding that play is the highest form of research and that children are capable, confident, and creative beings that deserve the time and space to reach their potential through free play.

“I would say the most distinctive parts about SHP are the teachers, the community, and the outdoor learning/environment. I love, love, love (can't emphasize enough) how much they go outside! To me, that's one of the most important things for kids and I think SHP does a phenomenal job promoting outdoor learning and exploring! Kids are supposed to get dirty and be outside! Obviously, playgrounds are great, but changing up the outdoor activities is so important!”
-SHP Parent, Anna  


science-of-play-6Because of our firm belief in outdoor play, every SHP student benefits from time spent in nature. This includes appropriate gear, supervision, materials, and opportunity. All students have at school a change of clothes, including shoes, and either bring to school daily or leave at school the appropriate gear for all weather conditions. We encourage messy play and outdoor play even in adverse weather conditions, and all students of SHP are prepared for mess, mud, rain, or other conditions.

“The big change for me is the outdoor time. The fact that you are willing to let the kids get muddy and explore outside is huge. So many preschools would say it's too cold, too wet, too hot, or whatever, but Sacred Heart teachers are always up for the challenge and willing to let the kids explore.”
-SHP Parent, Emily


We hope you have the opportunity to see our outdoor play in action and visit our beautiful campus very soon! It makes us all want to go back to preschool!