The unique characteristics and stimuli of the outdoor environment provide a wealth of opportunities for play involving open-ended interactions, spontaneity, exploration, discovery, risk-taking, and imagination. Outdoor spaces also allow children to connect with, learn about and start to take responsibility for nature and the environment.
Spending time outdoors provides a wide range of play opportunities that cannot be replicated indoors, particularly for risky play, as well as an authentic context for children to learn about the world and their place within it. In outdoor settings, children generally move more, sit less and engage in play for more sustained periods. Green spaces also have positive effects on the physical and mental health of both children and adults. Contact with nature is associated with self-regulation, and physical activity in natural settings greatly improves self-esteem and positive emotions and behaviours.
Research has identified seven characteristics that exemplify outdoor environments that best support children’s exploration, play and learning in early childhood education settings: character, context, connectivity, change, chance, clarity and challenge. Thinking about the design and set-up of outdoor spaces in ECE in terms of these factors will ensure that these spaces richly serve children’s learning and wellbeing needs.
Reflecting on resource allocation and use, time spent engaging with nature, ease of access to outdoor and natural spaces, and the role of adults in outdoor spaces can provide a rich source information about the learning potential of the environment as well as children’s interests and capacities.
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