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Planning for outdoor play

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By Elizabeth HendersonEarly Years Education Consultant

Outdoor learning promotes active play and problem-solving. You can create a safe outside environment with these straightforward steps

Wellies splashing in puddles


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All outdoor space, from a window-box to a woodland, has potential for active learning and problem-solving through the changing seasons. Yet, the very thought of planning for the outdoor environment fills some practitioners with dread! So, just how might we plan for the outdoors?

It can be a scary thought!

A common fear among practitioners considering outdoor play is the possibility of children getting hurt. Recent research in Australia has highlighted some of the dilemmas Early Years practitioners face in adapting their practice to the outdoors. After the introduction of ‘loose’ materials to their playground, such as car tyres, boxes and small hay bales, Australian practitioners’ perception of risk increased as well as their fear of litigation, should a child experience injury. Yet there was no increase at all in accidents during the research and practitioners went on to note that children became less aggressive in the playground and more social, resilient and creative in their play with the new resources.

If you are experiencing outdoor ‘risk anxiety’ in your setting, you could discuss this at a team meeting and look at the research in Australia. The Australian practitioners learned how to intervene at appropriate times, using these ‘risky’ moments as learning opportunities for the children by helping them to assess the risks involved for themselves, consequently developing self-esteem and confidence. Considered and measured risk-taking can be positive for children, encouraging them to become more independent in making choices. As a child negotiates risk in an outdoor environment, they have a certain sense of freedom and an opportunity to develop confidence in their abilities and judgment. Allowing children to take considered risks and to have more freedom in their choices and movements can improve neuronal growth through greater and more complex body movements. In turn this develops greater bodily control, stimulates digestive organs and creates a healthy appetite.


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Engaging with the outdoors

Is wet weather just for the ducks? We can all have fun outdoors, whatever the weather, but we need to ensure that everyone has appropriate clothing, footwear and sun protection, and this includes staff! Our colleagues in Norway and Denmark live in cultures with greater ties to the natural environment than our own. Many young Scandinavian children learn to ski as soon as they can walk and visit their family ‘hytte’ (wood-cabin in the forest) throughout the year, experiencing the natural environment first hand. When was the last time your team ventured into the forest? If the thought of being in an outdoor context doesn’t appeal to some staff members why not arrange a professional development session in the woods? Check out where your nearest community woodland, local park, forest school or national park is, and spend a day there as a team. The sheer magic of a forest, coastal path or woodland might be enough to motivate your team into action and they will experience first hand the vast learning opportunities that can be encountered in such contexts.

Children playing with sand


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Dealing with anxious parents

Many parents associate the words ‘play’ and ‘outdoors’ with leisure and worry that their children will miss out on learning when allowed to play outside. You can gently remind parents that the foundation for all learning lies in movement, play and making sense of the world in the early years. Movement skills, balance and co-ordination are needed later when children learn to write. Hand-eye co-ordination skills are developed when children, out of their own curiosity, pick up shells, stones, minibeasts and leaves. Discriminating between sounds, essential for good spelling, can be nurtured by listening to different bird-song or wind chimes. Gathering leaves of different shapes and sizes can be the beginning of mathematical sorting and shape identification.

All of these activities are embedded within meaningful experience; they are fun and motivate children to learn. Research has shown that children who play and explore natural landscapes appear to be healthier, have greater motor control, balance and co-ordination and exhibit more creativity in play. All of which creates a strong foundation for later schooling and nurtures their self-esteem and well-being.


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  1. SteveJen
    on 13 September 2017

    learn your skills

    Find out what you need to improve in yourself to become more effective!