Outdoor play – How important is it?

May 4, 2023 11:55 am
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“The best classroom and the richest cupboard is roofed only by the sky” McMillan, 1925

This quote really does highlight the enormous opportunities the outdoor space can offer us in terms of play and learning.  It should be remembered, however, that outdoor play is more than taking the indoor resources outside.  Instead, it is a valuable space in its own right, somewhere children can explore, be curious and experience awe and wonder.

Without the limitations of the indoors, play outdoors can be on a bigger scale.  Children can be noisy, run, climb and be messy with a sense of creativity and freedom.  However, it’s also a space where we can have quiet time, contemplate, think and chat.  This is evidence of the versatility the outdoors affords us.

Not only that but the space is ever-changing, influenced by the seasons and weather.  We can use this to inform our learning, responding spontaneously at the sight of a rainbow, snow, frosty mornings, hail and wind.  From this, we can engage in conversations which reflect nature and our connection with it through play and exploration.

The size and type of your outdoor space are likely to dictate the play and learning opportunities available to you.  Those with green spaces can enjoy bug hunts, making and flying kites, observational drawings and den building.  Concrete areas can be used for large-scale mark-making, ball and parachute games and physical play on bikes or in cars.

Add in pots and planters where children can grow their own plants and vegetables which they tend to throughout the seasons.  Large loose parts are also fabulous for open-ended, creative play which inspires problem-solving and collaboration.

Some ideas include:

  • Planks
  • Cable reels
  • Pipes
  • Guttering
  • Tyres
  • Tarpaulin
  • Sticks
  • Cardboard boxes

These resources are not typically used indoors due to space limitations.  However, in the outdoor environment, they are a way to encourage rich, exploratory play.  As these resources are open-ended, there is no right or wrong way to use them and therefore children have some autonomy over their play.  Constructions are not inhibited by the restricted indoor space and as a result, children can build high and wide which brings a different dimension to the play.

In addition to loose parts, there are some ‘essentials’ for outdoor areas which contribute to the area being an inspiring space to play and learn.  These include a mud kitchen, sand and water, spaces to construct, areas to be creative by writing, mark making or painting as well as access to books.

The way these resources are used over the course of a year will evolve and you can add enhancements to extend the play.  We can assess when and where to add these enhancements through a process of observation. When educators take time to observe children in the outdoors, it can tell us vital information about characteristics of effective learning, development and skills, preferences and interests.  These can feed into the planning to continue to develop the outdoor space as an area where children are inspired to engage.

It’s a good idea to carry out regular audits of resources to ensure the space is meeting the needs of the children.  Are there spaces or resources where children can practise their gross motor skills, where are there quiet spaces for children to retreat to, away from the hustle and bustle of more noisy play? Consider the way staff are deployed in order to make the most of the outdoor space.

Ideally, the free flow should be available so children have the choice to play outside throughout the session.  However, if this isn’t an option, reflect on how often and for how long children are accessing fresh air.  Importantly, remember that appropriate outdoor clothing is essential.  It’s a good idea to inform families prior to children starting about the need for waterproof clothing and wellies. Also, remember the need for protection in the warmer weather with sun hats and sun cream. Perhaps consider keeping spares as we know that situations arise where these items get forgotten or perhaps families aren’t in the position to afford them.  No child should miss out on playing outdoors.

Most importantly, the outdoors should be a space where children feel happy, safe and have time to just ‘be’.  They can enjoy the freedom and fresh air, connect with nature and engage in the sensory experiences associated with being outside.  This can be as simple as children feeling the wind in their hair, catching raindrops on their tongues and mark-making in frost.  It can be a way to relax and be calm away from the noise and overwhelm of an indoor space.  The outdoors is a rich, sensory learning environment even without additional resources.  Think about the smells, colours and textures children can experience when we encourage them to be still and notice the world around them.

Finally, it’s vital to carry out daily risk assessments of the outdoor environment prior to children using the space.  Check for hazards which may result in injuries or accidents.  This can include broken resources, litter such as glass or animal faeces and damage to gates or fencing. We want children to be safe and this also eases our own anxiety when children are playing outdoors.

Whatever your outdoor area looks like, the value lies in you as an educator embracing what it can offer.  Children look to us as role models so it is our responsibility to show them how much fun outdoor play can be. It’s more than facilitating an enabling outdoor space, we need to be enthusiastic within it.  Most of all, have fun!