The values we lay in outdoor play

‘The outdoor environment is suited to meeting children’s needs for all types of play, and builds on their firsthand experiences.’ Claire Warden shares the value of indoor and outdoor play through 10 visions and values collated from different organisations who are dedicated to connecting children with nature.

The vision for all young children is that:

  • all children have the right to experience and enjoy the essential and special nature of being outdoors from a very young age
  • young children thrive, and their minds and bodies develop best when they have free access to stimulating outdoor environments for learning through play and real experiences
  • knowledgeable and enthusiastic adults are crucial to unlocking the potential of outdoor learning.

We believe it is essential to underpin vision and, in particular, values with why they came about. It’s also important to have detailed information on the meaning of each value.

The details below come from a Vision and Values Day hosted by Learning Through Landscapes in the UK. A number of organisations contributed to the vision and values, which have gone on to influence people around the world.

1. Young children should be outdoors as much as indoors, and need a well-designed, well-organised, integrated indoor-outdoor environment, preferably with indoors and outdoors available simultaneously

Outdoor experiences are an essential part of children’s daily environment and life. They are not an option or an extra. Both indoor and outdoor environments offer significantly different—but complementary—experiences and ‘ways of being’ to young children. They should be available simultaneously and experienced jointly, with each having equal status and attention because both contribute to young children’s wellbeing, health, stimulation and general development.

Outdoor space must be considered a necessary part of an early years’ environment; it needs to be organised in a way that maximises its value and usability for children and adults; and its design must support developmentally appropriate practice, and be driven by children’s interests and needs.

2. Play is the most important activity for young children outside

Children find stimulation, wellbeing and happiness from play. It also helps children grow physically, intellectually and emotionally. Play is the most important thing for children to do outside and the most relevant way for learning outdoors. The outdoor environment is suited to meeting children’s needs for all types of play, and builds on their firsthand experiences.

3. Outdoor environments can, and must, offer young children experiences that are meaningful to them and are child-led

Being outdoors offers children the freedom to move on a large scale, and to be active, noisy and messy. Children can use all their senses outdoors, and also explore, make sense of life and express their feeling and ideas. Many young children relate to learning outdoors more than learning indoors.

Outdoor environments need to be organised so children are stimulated and can follow their own interests and needs through play-based activity. This will give them independence, self-organisation, participation and empowerment. The adult role is crucial in achieving this.

4. Young children need adults to help them understand why outdoor play is essential for them

Young children need adults who value and enjoy the outdoors themselves, and who see the potential it has for young children’s wellbeing and development. Adults’ attitude, understanding, commitment and positive thinking are important, as are skills to make the most of the outdoors and to effectively support child-led learning. The adult role outdoors must be considered just as important as adult roles indoors. Early childhood educators need to recognise, capture and share children’s outdoor learning with parents, and other people working with the child, so they too become enthused about the outdoor learning environment. Cultural differences in attitude to the outdoors need to be understood and worked with sensitively to reach the best outcomes for children.

5. The outdoor space and curriculum must harness the special nature of the outdoors, to offer children what the indoors cannot

The outdoor space offers young children essential experiences vital to their wellbeing, health and development in all areas. Children who miss these experiences are significantly deprived.

When outside, children have the freedom to explore different ways of being, feeling, behaving and interacting. They have space—physically, mentally and emotionally; and they have room and permission to be active, interactive, messy, noisy, work on a large scale. Plus, they may feel less controlled by adults.

Being in contact with the elements, seasons and the natural world, and experiencing new perspectives, sensations and environments contribute to young children’s desires to be outside. A child cannot be the same indoors. Outdoor space is a vital, special and deeply engaging place for young children.

6. Outdoors should be a dynamic, flexible and versatile place where children can choose, create, change and be in charge of their play environment.

Outdoor areas can—and should—offer young children versatile, changeable and responsive environments for all types of play.  Children need to manipulate, create, control and modify these play areas. This offers children a huge sense of freedom, which is not readily available indoors. It also underpins creativity and the dispositions for learning. The space itself, as well as resources, layout, planning and routines, need to be versatile, open-ended and flexible to maximise their value to the child.

7. Young children must have a rich outdoor environment, full of irresistible stimuli, contexts for play, exploration and talk, plenty of real experiences and contact with the natural world and with the community

Through outdoor play, young children learn skills in social interaction and friendship. They also learn to care for living things and their environment, be curious and fascinated, experience awe, wonder and joy and become ‘lost in the experience’. They can satisfy their deep urge to explore, experiment and understand, and become aware of their community and locality. They can develop a sense of connection to the physical, natural and human world.

Being outdoors offers children many opportunities to experience the real world, have firsthand experiences, do real tasks and do what adults do—including being involved in the care of the outdoor space. Settings should make the most of this aspect, with connected play opportunities.

An aesthetic awareness of and emotional link to the non-constructed or controlled, multi-sensory and multi-dimensional natural world is a crucial component of human wellbeing, and increasingly absent in young children’s lives. The richness of cultural diversity is an important part of our everyday world; this can and should be explored by children through outdoor experiences. Giving children a sense of belonging to something bigger than the immediate family or setting, lays foundations for living as a community.

8. Young children should have long periods of time outside. They need to know that they can be outside every day, when they want to, and that they can develop their ideas for play over time

Quality outdoor play, where children are deeply involved in an activity, only emerges when children know they can take their time. They need time to use the spaces and resources available, and they need uninterrupted time to develop their play ideas, or to construct a place and play in it, or to get into problem-solving on a big scale. They need to be able to return to projects again and again until ‘finished’ with them.

Slow learning is good learning, giving time for assimilation. When children can move between indoors and outdoors, their play or explorations develop further. Young children also need time (and places) to daydream, look on or simply relax outside.

9. Young children need challenge and risk within a framework of security and safety. The outdoor environment lends itself to offering challenge, helping children learn how to be safe and to be aware of others.

Children are seriously disadvantaged if they don’t learn how to manage physical and emotional risks. They can become either timid or reckless, or be unable to cope with consequences. Young children need to set and meet their own challenges, become aware of their limits and push their abilities (at their own pace), be prepared to make mistakes, and experience the pleasure of feeling capable and competent. Challenges and associated risks are vital for this. Young children also need to learn how to recognise and manage risk as life-skills.

The safety of young children outdoors is essential, and a culture of ‘risk assessment to enable’ is vital for all outdoor settings. Young children need to feel secure, nurtured and valued when playing outside. This includes giving them clear behavioural boundaries (using rules to enable freedom), nurturing places and times outside, and respect for how they each prefer to play and learn.

10. Outdoor spaces must support inclusion, meet the needs of individuals, and offer diverse play-based experiences. Young children should participate in decisions and actions affecting their outdoor play.

Outdoor environments need to be adaptable to the needs of children, such as those who are active learners, those who need sensory or language stimulation, and those who need space away from others. Children’s self-image is nurtured when their learning styles are valued. Boys, who tend to use active learning modes more than girls, are particularly disadvantaged by limited outdoor play.

Young children react differently to the spaces and experiences available or created outdoors, so being aware and flexible to their responses is important. Observation and assessment (formative and summative), and intervention for particular support, must be carried out outside. While it is important to ensure the safety of all children, it is equally important to ensure all children are sufficiently challenged.

Young children should take an active part in decisions and actions for outdoor play—big and small. Their perspectives and ideas are critical and must be sought. Children can take an active role in setting up, clearing away, and caring for the outdoor space.


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Claire Warden

Dr Claire Warden is one of the world’s leading consultants and writers on the use of consultative methods in education. Her approach to nature kindergartens has earned her international recognition as a pioneer in educational thinking. Her respect for children and families runs through the Floorbooks Approach that she developed. It is often used within Nature Pedagogy to incorporate children’s voices into intentional teaching.

One thought on “The values we lay in outdoor play”

    Haylee Prins says:

    At Aurora Early Education we are working towards ensuring that all educators are aware of the importance of outdoor play. We are currently running a constant indoor/outdoor program and allow the children the choice of where they want to be throughout the day.
    We are also in the first stages of establishing and implementing a bush kinder program at both of our centres.
    We cant wait to see the results of our hard work for the children to enjoy!
    Haylee Prins – Educational Leader, Aurora Early Education
    http://www.auroraearlyeducation.com.au

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