“Intertwining social and emotional learning and academics advances the ability of our students to adapt to change with the essential skills to effectively manage new challenges” – Dr. Karen Burke (2018)

Going outside for a nice walk in the neighbourhood. Smelling the fresh air, hearing the birds chirp, feeling the sun on your skin. Putting on boots and a jacket or raincoat. Whether you are young or old, we all go outside. Whether it is to purposefully go for a walk, or to go to a friend’s house or just to get the newspaper, going outside is inevitable. And most of the time, it gives us a happy and satisfied feeling to be surrounded by nature and the animals.


What is the main reason that you go outside? Do you live near a forest or a park? How do you feel when you are outside in nature? Do you

Social-emotional learning is a term that can be linked to outdoor education. At first, you might think – is there a connection that can be made between the both of them? To start off this particular part of the chapter about the effect of outdoor education on the social-emotional learning (SEL) of children, think for yourself about both terms – social-emotional learning and outdoor education. What do they mean to you and is there a connection you can make between both of them?

What is Social-Emotional Learning (SEL)?

According to CASEL (Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning), social and emotional learning is “the process through which children and adults understand and manage emotions, set and achieve positive goals, feel and show empathy for others, establish and maintain positive relationships, and make responsible decisions” (CASEL, 2020).

There are five key elements of successful social-emotional learning: (CASEL, 2020)

  1. Self- awareness: understanding one’s own emotions, goals, and values.
  2. Self-management: controlling one’s own emotions and behaviours.
  3. Social awareness: ability to understand and empathize with others.
  4. Relationship skills: create and maintain relationships.
  5. Responsible decision-making: learning how to make choices about personal behaviour and social contacts.


  • Which key elements link more clearly to social development?
  • Which key elements link more clearly to emotional learning?
Importance of Social-Emotional Learning

There are many benefits to social-emotional learning. Some of the benefits include, students relating easier to others, they create a more positive attitude towards oneself and others, they experience less emotional distress, they experience more positive social behaviours and test scores and grades are improved (Weissberg, 2016). The named benefits above can be categorized into short-term student outcomes that SEL programs promote. Some of the long-term benefits of SEL include, the probability of graduation increasing, improved mental health situations, positive family and work relationships and more.

This link will lead you to a video made by a channel called Pyramid Model (2016), in which several practical strategies for teaching social emotional skills are explained.


Did you find any strategies in the video that you would use in your classroom? Which ones?
Benefits of outdoor learning linked to social-emotional learning.

An example of outdoor education is “nature kindergarten”. This is an educational outdoor campus for pre-school children. According to Park Academy Childcare (2017), “children are given the space and time to learn in a natural environment which facilitates their natural curiosity and ignites their innate sense of wonder” (Park Academy Childcare, 2017).

It is said that learning with nature and through nature offers holistic education, which does not only focus on physical development, but also on social and emotional development.

Aspects that can be linked to the social-emotional well-being of children when being educated outdoors are mentioned below:

Teamwork and cooperation

This aspect can be linked to relationship skills (element of SEL). These two aspects are linked mostly to social skills of children. This is of high importance, since children and adults cooperate with each other often. Using Nature Kindergarten as an example, but also taking in mind other outdoor education schools or programs, children are taught to work together with others when being outside.image


The children interact frequently throughout the day. In this way, children can learn the importance of teamwork and collaboration (or cooperation) (Park Academy Childcare, 2017). The great benefit of learning outdoors, but also being outside, is the fact that people can take “ownership” of the nature around them. This nurtures a feeling of being responsible and could perhaps nurture a sense of belonging.

Self-confidence and resilience

This aspect can be linked to self-awareness and self-management (elements of SEL). Nature Kindergarten ensures children can do many challenges and activities outside. They can accomplish the activities which suit them best. Completing these activities or tasks gives the students a feeling of achievement and this might result in the children feeling more confident. During completion of the tasks, the children also work on their resilience since they keep on trying the challenges when failed.

Independence and risk assessment

This aspect can be linked to responsible decision making and self-management (elements of SEL). When students complete the challenges or even work on them, they get a feeling of becoming more independent. The more they complete, the more they might have the feeling of completing the challenges by themselves.

Risk assessment is also part of Nature Kindergarten, since the children are encouraged “to think through the potential outcomes of their planned actions” (Park Academy Childcare, 2017). It is also stated that risk assessment and risk taking are important for the development of a child. In this way, a child will find out what they are capable of and will create a sense of responsibility for their own actions. This will lead to a better self-esteem and self-belief.

Psychological and emotional wellbeing

The last social emotional benefit of Nature Kindergarten can be linked to psychological and emotional wellbeing. An example can be the connection between children and nature. An important aspect which is beneficial for the mental well-being of children in NK is the outdoor environment, in which the children focus on what they are doing and become engaged in what they are doing outdoors.  A biological effect from nature which helps increase a positive mental well-being is “reducing stress levels in children and increasing vitamin D absorption” (Park Academy Childcare, 2017).


Outdoor education helps produce the “happy hormone” in the human body.

Vitamin D is vital for a child’s regulation of emotion and prevention of depression and anxiety, since this vitamin contains a hormone called “serotonin” (also known as the happy hormone). Another benefit of the outdoor environment is that it helps regulate melatonin due to the big amount of natural light. Melatonin is “a hormone which relaxes the body and promotes a good night’s sleep, so it helps children feel more refreshed and better able to cope with life’s challenges” (Park Academy Childcare, 2017).

Outdoor Play

Besides outdoor education, there is also (outdoor) play, which is of high importance for social-emotional development, especially in early childhood. It is stated that play promotes social-emotional competence – think about pretend play, constructive play, or free exploration of objects in the environment, for instance. When looking at natural outdoor environments, it can be stated that play is often “more complex, extended, and self-determined” (Thompson & Thompson, 2007). When thinking about the five key elements of social-emotional learning, the development of self includes “the process of gaining self-awareness, self-esteem, and developing an ever-deepening understanding of others”. Other competencies which can be related to self can be positively linked to outdoor education or learning. Self-regulation involves the skill to maintain focused attention. Research has been done about attentional disorders and has shown that children that learn through and with nature or natural environments tend to have better attention span. More research has been done which showed that natural outdoor settings have a positive impact on learning or behavioural challenges.

Social emotional issues and how to improve them

Not every child succeeds at developing their social-emotional skills. It might occur in a future classroom that a child finds it difficult to connect with other peers, or the child finds it difficult to talk about feelings or emotions. In this case, there are several strategies that can be applied. Whenever a child might show social-emotional concerns, keep in mind that a one-time conversation will not do its job. These types of conversations need to be repeated multiple times for the child to understand themselves better. Once you have started the conversations, it is a matter of what is being said to the child (Morin, 2014).

Once the conversations have started with the child, it is crucial to establish a trusting relationship. Children will be more likely to ask certain questions, but most importantly to express their thinking. The next step is to show warmth and affection towards the children. This will contribute to “developing secure relationships between children and adults, provide models of gentle behaviour, and are linked with children’s ability to interact positively with peers” (Ho & Funk, 2018). Important is the teaching of social and emotional skills intentionally. It is of utmost importance to teach social and emotional skills intentionally. This can be done through for instance the use of children’s books, coaching and giving praise.

Activities to build social and emotional skills


Click this link from The Pathway 2 Success website to see how you can use outdoor activities to build social skills. are shown which help children to build social skills.

The next activity is an activity which boosts emotional development, which can also be implemented outdoors. The activity is called “Calm Down Yoga” (figure 2), where the students participate in a yoga session and have to recreate poses (Apperson, 2020).


In this session, the students will identify their emotions and are taught how to regulate emotions through calming yoga poses. This activity can easily be done outside (on the playground when all the other children are indoors or even in a forest or other outdoors location nearby the school). This activity can be turned into social-emotional activity by letting the children create poses which can be performed with two or more children.

Another emotion activity is the drawing of different emotions on objects. For indoors, students can use eggs for instance, but outdoors they can use rocks or leaves. The students work together. They draw an emotion on the object and have to recreate the emotion expressed on the object. In this way, they will work together and familiarize themselves with the different emotions (Apperson, 2020). Another way of playing this game is by only drawing the eyes on the top part of the object and letting the students draw the bottom part. In this way, they can finish the emotion using their own interpretation.

Activities that boost both social and emotional skills, are for instance different types of ball games, in which children have to work together (Mcilroy, 2020). This activity can easily be done outside. Another activity that tackles both skills is roleplay, in which they can act out a scene outdoors.


Do you see social-emotional learning/development as one word or two? Can we separate the social from the emotional? If yes, in what ways? If no, why not?

Outdoor education has many benefits and advantages to boost social-emotional development amongst children. However, social-emotional development or learning is a concept that is hard to measure and teach, “because there simply is no one-size-fits-all measurement …” (Allen, 2015). Therefore, there are some activities shared that can improve the social-emotional development for children. Now you have finished reading this subchapter, hopefully the meaning of SEL is more clear and you have gained more knowledge about how SEL can be implemented in classrooms and how it can be linked to outdoor education or learning.

The best classroom and the richest cupboard are roofed only by the sky – Margaret MCMillan (1925).


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