Visual Spatial Learning in Outdoor Classrooms

This is the final in a series of blogs highlighting “Growing with Nature: Supporting Whole-Child Learning in Outdoor Classrooms.” Contributors include Dimensions Educational Research Foundation executive director Nancy Rosenow and members of the Nature Explore education team.


Visual/Spatial Learning: The ability to perceive the visual information in the environment, to represent it internally, to integrate it with other senses and experiences, to derive meaning and understanding, and to perform manipulations and transformations on those perceptions. It is the first language of the brain.

People with highly developed visual/spatial skills pay more attention to the world around them. They notice and appreciate the details of life: the architecture of buildings they pass, the kinds of trees in their neighborhoods, the litter that mars a city park. Visual/spatial skills give people the ability to negotiate well in space: to follow maps, traverse a forest trail, or maneuver a car into a tight parking space. Fluency in these skills is especially crucial for professions such as architecture, engineering, computer science, aviation, and so on.

In a world in which our senses are bombarded by a confusing array of visual information from television, video games and advertisements, people with strong visual/spatial skills are able to make sense of the chaos by “sorting out” the distracting images. Those who haven’t learned to do so often stop paying attention to the details in the world around them in order to guard against visual overload.

This is exactly what we don’t want our children to do. Happily, time in nature provides countless antidotes to “image overload,” as well as opportunities for growth and development in visual/spatial awareness. Here are some spectacular examples, submitted by educators from around the country.


“In the outdoor classroom, our preschool children are able to use natural loose parts to explore connections and concepts such as physics, fulcrums, bridges, balance and others. When allowed to manipulate boards, sticks and wooden tree cookies, children can bridge ideas and hypothesize together to discover answers. One day, children gleefully discovered they could move water from one place to another safely across a mud hole.”

–Johanna Booth Miner, Live and Learn Early Learning Center, Lee, NH


“I watched as Thea, three years old, carefully lined up mini-bricks on the newly installed tree cookie flooring in our Building Area. She created two joining circles and a line of bricks curving away. ‘This is the pond I went fishing in.’ Then pointing to the line, she continued, ‘This is the way to get there.’ I made a sketch of the pond and Thea and put it in her portfolio. When I showed Thea’s mother the sketch, she told me that their family had just been fishing together for the first time the previous weekend, and Thea caught the only fish.”

–Christine Kiewra, Dimensions Early Education Programs. Lincoln, NE


“One week, a child in my group had just returned from a vacation to the Grand Canyon. He brought stories, photos and postcards to share his experiences with his friends. The group was inspired to create the Grand Canyon in the Sand Area by scooping channels and filling them with water. There was lots of discussion about the size of the canyon in relation to the riverbed, estimations of how much water the channel would hold, and what the length would be from rim to rim.”

–Kris Van Laningham, Dimensions Early Education Programs, Lincoln, NE



Thoughtfully designed outdoor classrooms provide great opportunities to capitalize on children’s immediate enthusiasms or interests, all while enhancing their opportunities for visual/spatial learning. For more inspiring stories—and ideas that can be recreated in outdoor classrooms or family backyards—“Growing with Nature” is available here