ECE Resources

Key ideas for facilitating children’s outdoor play and learning

By Dr Vicki Hargraves

In our webinar with Dr Helen Little on outdoor play environments, we explore outdoor play opportunities and their particular affordances for promoting children’s wellbeing and learning. Helen discusses how being outdoors, especially in natural outdoor learning environments, provides the opportunity for authentic experiences that support children’s learning and development through open-ended interactions, exploration, discovery, risk-taking, and connection with nature. Here are some of the key insights from the webinar: 

Outdoor environments support children’s health and wellbeing and offer opportunities for complex learning experiences. Open spaces encourage physical activity which promotes health outcomes as well as motor development. Outdoor experiences also promote children’s visual development, as increases in myopia (short-sightedness) are attributed to a lack of opportunities to be exposed to sunlight and look at objects over long distances. Being outside also makes us feel better psychologically. Finally, there are endless opportunities in terms of children’s discoveries and exploration in almost every curricular area, such as using rich descriptive language or experiencing science and maths concepts in relation to physical elements such as the weather and animal habitats. 

Natural outdoor environments are important for children. This is particularly significant in big cities as they become more urbanised, limiting children’s access to natural environments compared to previous generations. Natural spaces open up learning opportunities for developing positive attitudes to nature and learning about environmental issues. 

It is worthwhile to consider diversity and uniqueness in outdoor play provision. Teachers can think about how to arrange and resource the outdoor environment in order to provide a diversity of experiences such as pretend play, gross motor, and sand and water play, which allows children to follow their particular interests. Teachers can also think about how to provide opportunities to do activities in different ways that capture the uniqueness of doing them outdoors. For example, outdoors children can have the opportunity to transfer their learning to a bigger scale, such as thinking about stability when they stack the crates high to climb. 

Risky play is about uncertainty, play and learning. Risky play enables children to step out of their comfort zones to challenge themselves to expand their capabilities. All learning involves children in pushing themselves and testing their limits, but the term ‘risky play’ is often taken to refer to an activity involving hazard and potential injury, and is in part the result of a backlash against an overemphasis on safety and aversion to risk. The category of risky play can include experiences of playing with heights (climbing), speed (riding), tools (hammer, saws, knives), dangerous elements (water, rocks), impact (riding bikes into walls, or throwing themselves on cushions), being away from adults (dens), or rough and tumble play. These kind of play opportunities enable children to learn about their capacities, assess risks and think about the consequences of, for example, riding their bike through a group of children. The more opportunities children have to test their limits, the more likely they are to make good judgements, but when they fail or it doesn’t work out the way they intend, they have an opportunity to learn resilience and peserverance. Risky play is a self-chosen activity, and children will usually only push themselves to the extent they think they can manage.   

It is important to draw a distinction between risks and hazards. Parents can be concerned about risk, so it is important to explain how risky play in early childhood settings can provide positive, well-managed opportunities for learning. This also involves articulating carefully the benefits of a planned risky play experience in terms of what children will get out of it but also how you plan to manage hazards. Hazards need to be minimised so that risk is of an acceptable level. An outdoor play policy can be helpful, and can indicate ways in which hazards will be managed. For example, you might have a policy that children will be closely supervised when engaging in risky play, or develop a set of rules around tree-climbing which reduce the risk of injury (only designated trees that have branches strong enough to hold the children’s weight, marking a height limit with a piece of ribbon, placing mulch under the tree as soft fall). Working with children on setting the rules for risky activities empowers children and helps them to build their risk appraisal skills.  

Loose parts and loose structures can add challenge to outdoor play. Flexible environments have lots of loose parts which provide opportunities for children to use them in creative and innovative ways. For example, children might balance a length of timber on a piece of PVC piping for a balancing challenge. Natural environments provide some of their own loose parts in terms of fallen leaves or seed pods children can use in a myriad of ways in their play, and upcycled loose parts include things like big electrical cable spools, length of bamboo, buckets and crates. Flexible outdoor environments that children can use creatively to create their own challenges can help to overcome issues with challenging behaviour.