A Practical Guide to Taking Social Emotional Learning (SEL) Outdoors

Most of us know that learning doesn’t just happen in the classroom. Children are constantly taking in information and figuring out how to use it to their daily lives, even when playing outside! It’s easy to see how children are learning to use and control their gross motor skills while playing outdoors, but social-emotional learning is happening outside, too!

Social-emotional learning (SEL) is the process by which children grow their knowledge and vocabulary about feelings and how they gain understanding of how to communicate and build relationships with others.

While there is typically an instructional focus on cognitive skills and functions, like literacy, math, or even motor capabilities, like jumping and holding writing utensils, the emphasis on teaching and learning social emotional skills is often less intentional. SEL has been linked to positive outcomes for children throughout their academic and personal lives.

Click here to read more about SEL and why it is important.

Supporting Social and Emotional Learning (SEL) Outside the Classroom

Young children learn through play and experience, whether in a classroom, at the park with a family member, or outside on the playground. So let’s focus on some ways to support that play and offer students outdoor learning activities that encourage the development of positive social emotional skills.

Teamwork and Cooperation

Outdoor games and group activities, like kickball, tag, or soccer, might seem like gross motor activities, but they are also social-emotional learning experiences! Children are learning teamwork while working towards a goal and cooperation while playing together.

You may have heard or read about the positive relationships and social skills children gain by playing team sports. This is certainly true, but early childhood educators can cultivate these same social emotional learning opportunities through intentionally designed outdoor play and outdoor learning activities. Working together and problem solving are necessary parts of any group activity, whether extracurricular or part of the school day.

Use active outdoor experiences to model language for children. Compliment their social interactions as much as their physical skills. “That was awesome how you worked together and took turns kicking the ball!”

When a child falls down or gets hurt, encourage their peers to ask if they need help getting up, a hug, and let them know that showing feeling or emotion is a regular part of life. The relationship skills children learn during active play translate to social awareness in all aspects of their lives.

How to Nurture SEL Skills in Nature

Nature can be very calming. But when children are used to outside as the place where they run and yell, they might need some instruction on how to enjoy and respect nature. Try some of these ideas to help children understand how time in nature can calm their bodies.

Go on a nature walk and focus on how different aspects of the natural world make children feel. Ask them to stop and identify different sensory aspects of the world around them. What do they see, smell, feel, or hear? Practice The Calming Kit breathing techniques as you explore the outdoors together. Remember the kit comes in a backpack that is easily portable for use outside. This activity helps children connect their emotions with the environment around them. Imagine speaking affirmations to yourself with the self-talking phone while you relax in the sunshine or hang out in a cozy area under a tree. If your playground does not include a natural area, consider taking a walk to a local park (with permission of course!).

A calming nature walk is also a great transition from energetic outdoor play back to quieter indoor play. Children can feel their heartbeats when they stop running and playing, go on the nature walk, and then feel them again to see how focusing on natural objects calms their bodies.

Empathy is a skill that must be learned. Having the emotional awareness to understand how someone else feels takes practice and time. Help children begin to learn empathy by caring for plants and animals.

Planting and caring for a garden or filling a bird feeder each day helps children learn the basics of responsible decision making, respect for the environment, and encourages them to build social skills as they work with others towards a community goal.

Activities to Build Social and Emotional Skills

Here are a few ideas of different outdoor activities to support social and emotional skills and enhance learning outdoors. We’ve included some partner activities, group work, as well as opportunities for children to play and learn independently. Feel free to alter these activities in any way that would support your students’ learning!

Partner activities

Collaborative/Partner Art: Set up a large canvas or a piece of butcher paper outside. Provide various art supplies such as paints, markers, and crayons. Invite children to work together to create a collaborative art piece that represents their emotions or a shared experience. This activity fosters cooperation, communication, and emotional expression.

Outdoor Feelings Bingo: Use the bingo cards from our Emotional Literacy Kit outside! Have children pair up, walk around together, and find things outside that make them feel each emotion. For example, “Find something that makes you feel excited. Tell your partner and then check off that bingo square! Find something that makes you feel angry. Tell your partner and then check off that one.” This activity helps children identify emotions and connect them to their daily lives.

Feelings Relay Race: Create a relay race where children must complete different emotional tasks at each station. For example, they might have to jump up and down with excitement, walk slowly and calmly, or stomp their feet in frustration. This activity helps children recognize and regulate different emotions while engaging in physical activity.

Group work

Scavenger Hunt: There are lots of ways to do a scavenger hunt! A color scavenger hunt in your outdoor environment is so fun and easy! When students work in teams, they practice their relationship skills and problem solving.

Here is a video of a really neat nature color wheel scavenger hunt activity from MotherNatured on YouTube!

Parachute: This one is always a hit when it comes to outdoor activities! In order to keep the parachute up, children have to work together. Remind students that each of them has an important role in the parachute’s success. Besides being fun and engaging large motor muscles, this activity helps build a sense of school community as kids work towards a common goal!

Follow the Leader or Simon Says: In these classic games, you can offer each child a chance to lead, which helps them gain self-confidence and will help teach SEL skills like taking initiative and waiting their turn.

Independent Activities

Outdoor Reading Nook: A blanket or soft mat in the shade with a basket of books is a sweet place for children to calm their bodies. Remind children it is there and encourage them to use it when they need some space to themselves. Eventually, students will use the area on their own, demonstrating self awareness as they recognize and manage emotions.

Outdoor Quiet or Cozy Area: Just as you probably have indoors, a cozy space with sensory supportive toys, like a squeeze heart, bubbles, a personal music player, and soft toys is helpful outdoors. When children get overstimulated by loud or active play, they can retreat to the cozy area to calm their minds and bodies. Add Tucker Turtle and his calm down steps to remind children of ways they can relax.

Obstacle Course: For those kids who want to do something by themselves, with others. (You know the ones!) An obstacle course is self-paced, teaches SEL skills like perseverance, self management, and also helps children practice their motor skills.

Breathing and Yoga: Find a quiet spot outside and guide children through simple mindful breathing exercises. Encourage them to focus on their breath, notice how their bodies feel, and express any emotions that arise. This activity promotes self-awareness and emotional regulation and also lowers stress levels.

You can also place yoga mats and yoga cards in a dedicated space for children to use on their own. Yoga and stretching are great social emotional releases.

Structured vs. Unstructured SEL Opportunities

Free play is a major key to early childhood education. Allowing children choice of activity, place to play, and who to play with is important. An educator’s role in free play is a facilitator. They facilitate play by being intentional about the choices offered to students and by talking and guiding children through their exploration of materials.

Structured Play

Teacher-led or structured play is important for showing children how to use new materials, introducing new concepts, and building a sense of community. It should be used in moderation since children learn best through cooperative play and freely interacting with their environments.

How to Include SEL in Unstructured Play

This blog has shared some teacher-led SEL outdoor activities as well as some opportunities for free choice SEL outdoor activities. Like indoor free play, you want to offer children a variety of options for outdoor learning experiences. Be sure to include outdoor learning opportunities in your lesson planning. Think about what SEL skills you want to promote and how you can design activities that support them. Keep in mind that most indoor activities can also go outdoors!

The Benefits of SEL in Outdoor Education

Research shows there are many benefits to following SEL programs, including:

  • increased academic performance as young people as well as later in life
  • higher self confidence
  • positive emotional/mental health and social wellbeing
  • lower stress levels
  • better communication skills with peers and adults

Outdoor Social Emotional Learning Last Words

Social and emotional learning is a huge part of daily experiences in early childhood. Teachers have the honor to watch children’s emotional development and the privilege to help kids build social skills, develop self awareness, and learn how to manage emotions and relationships. Outdoor education is as important for building SEL skills as classroom activities.

The goal is to let children play, but intentionally design the opportunities you offer your students. The environment, whether indoor or outdoor, natural or constructed, acts as an additional teacher can be a fantastic support for social and emotional learning.

Check out any of our fabulous social emotional kits and resources in our digital catalog. We’d love to help you brainstorm ideas for using these materials in your outdoor learning environment!


Kathy Moss

FANTASTIC! 100% on point.
LOVE the reminder to professionals that SEL can take place outdoors and can be combined with so many other areas of development.
GREAT post!
Keep them coming!!!!


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