Investing in School Readiness
Early Childhood Educators Explore the Benefits of Outdoor Play During Virtual Book Chats

Early Childhood Educators Explore the Benefits of Outdoor Play During Virtual Book Chats

February 12, 2021

Last fall, Fairfax Futures hosted its 16th Annual School Readiness Symposium, bringing together nearly 500 early childhood educators. The virtual event featured keynote speaker Angela Hanscom, author of Balanced and Barefoot: How Unrestricted Outdoor Play Makes for Strong, Confident, and Capable Children. Hanscom spoke about the physical, emotional and psychological benefits that can be achieved by allowing children to freely play and explore outdoors.

Recognizing that the one-day symposium would only allow participants to scratch the surface of this fascinating topic, Fairfax Futures teamed up with the Fairfax County Office for Children School Readiness team to offer a four-week virtual series. Held in November and December, the hour-long “Book Chats” were based on Hanscom’s book, with each of the 100+ participants receiving a copy of the book and other materials to support their learning. Participants included a wide cross section of early childhood educators, including staff from community early childhood programs including centers and family child care homes, FCPS Pre-K programs, kindergarten classrooms, and early childhood special education. 

Participants were placed in eight cohorts that addressed these key topics from the book: The Benefits of Active Free Play; Re-thinking Traditional Classroom Design; The Therapeutic Value of Outdoor Play; and one group conducted entirely in Spanish that focused on a variety of themes from Ms. Hanscom’s book. OFC staff and consultants Jill McFarren Aviles and Ana Hoover served as facilitators and collaborated on the curriculum design for each topic. The sessions were unstructured learning opportunities with facilitators encouraging participants to share ideas, best practices, and experiences.

A child at Jackson Child Care explores the wonders of playing with tree stumps.

“Working through the logistics required to host the sessions virtually over four weeks was challenging but well worth the effort. The topics struck a chord with educators, resulting in conversations and ideas that I believe will have a lasting and positive impact on early childhood educators in our region and on the children in their care. The expertise and experience of the diverse group of educators led to rich conversations on how to incorporate unstructured outdoor play with young children, especially amidst the challenges of working through the constraints of a global pandemic,” said Sallyann Bergh, Executive Director of Fairfax Futures.

In addition to attending the weekly sessions, participants completed bridging assignments – often reading portions of Hanscom’s book, conducting exercises to explore a topic, or making observations to report back to the group. Facilitators shared resources, such as books, websites and videos, on the benefits of outdoor play. Angela Hanscom joined a kickoff session for the series to answer questions and share her insight.

At the conclusion of the Book Chats, feedback was universally positive, with many asking for the sessions to be offered again. Participants also were eager to share what they learned with colleagues and the parents of children in their care. OFC staff who led the sessions also enjoyed the experience, which provided the opportunity to collaborate with colleagues outside their immediate teams. They also enjoyed the flexibility to modify the curriculum to meet the needs and requests of participants.

Facilitator Cecie Boggs with OFC’s Institute for Early Learning shared, “Angela Hanscom’s book and experiences were huge influences in our session planning. Our discussions focused on the spirit of exploration and discovery while looking for ways to increase movement opportunities for young learners. It was a wonderful opportunity for all of us to learn and grow together.” 


Did you know that Fairfax County has many available resources to further support children’s exploration? Whether you are an educator or a parent, here are some ideas to get you started:

Clemyjontri Park

6317 Georgetown Pike

McLean, VA 22101


The Sensory Room

Providence Community Center

3001 Vaden Drive

Fairfax, VA  22031


Frying Pan Farm Park

Fairfax County Park Authority

Farm: 2709 West Ox Road

Visitor Center: 2739 West Ox Road

Herndon, VA 20171


Hidden Oaks Nature Center

7701 Royce Street

Annandale, VA 22003


Reading Resources

Mindset: The New Psychology of Success by Carol S. Dweck, Ph.D.

Free to Learn by Peter Gray 

The Importance of Being Little: What Young Children Really Need from Grownups by Erika Christakis 

Last Child in the Woods: Saving our Children from Nature-Deficit Disorder by Richard Louv

The Call of the Wild and Free: Reclaiming Wonder in Your Child's Education by Ainsley Arment 





Fairfax Futures thanks the PNC Foundation for its generous support of this professional learning opportunity for early childhood educators in our community.

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