Little Learners Outdoors thinks outside of the classroom for a new educational experience

Photo by Lightfield Studios

It may have just been a fallen tree trunk, but to the students at Little Learners Outdoors, it was a time-traveling train transporting them through ancient Egypt. Of course, the pyramids were merely the first stop of their adventure, as the kids’ imaginations led them to endless historic destinations. Such child-led, play-based learning is exactly what Little Learners Outdoors founder and teacher Shelly Smith envisioned when she embarked on a new educational journey. 

After teaching for 15 years, Smith grew concerned as she witnessed teachers and administrators removing play centers from classrooms and imagination from curricula.

Feeling there was no way she could continue teaching without allowing children to play, she started Little Learners Outdoors, an early childhood education program that puts play first. Taking place entirely outside, the program embraces the natural learning process in the natural world.

“The goal of the program is to get kids outside and to bring back play in early childhood,” says Smith. “A lot of schools are dropping play-based anything and are going straight to academics. Kids that age really need to learn through play, so I’m trying to bring that back.”

Trading a typical classroom setting for the Waddill Wildlife Refuge along the Comite River, Little Learners Outdoors offers holistic learning to children ages 3 to 6 through nature walks, picnics and outdoor activities. Mastering math by counting rocks, developing language skills by reading around the campfire, becoming natural science experts by identifying insects—Little Learners gain essential academic skills without even realizing they’re learning. And of course, climbing tree branches and digging hands into dirt allows for plenty of sensory play to round out the students’ development. 

Since opening last year, Little Learners Outdoors has expanded to offer several different programs including a half-day Parents Day Out, Family Fun Days and a Homeschool Nature Club. As her unique education experiences continue to attract more students, Smith hopes to start offering full-day childcare programs for busy parents. She continues to advocate for the importance of learner-centered education that embraces play. 

“Even grown-ups don’t want to sit and listen to a lecture all day—we want to be involved in what we learn. It’s human nature,” explains Smith. “Research has suggested for years that children learn through play, which is why I’m trying to bring that back. There’s no need to put kids in a classroom just to sit still and listen. If you put them out in nature, they will naturally explore and be eager to learn.”