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The Outdoor Environment

Outdoor learning environments offer children opportunities to explore, create, move, and develop an appreciation for nature. In this lesson, you will learn about the importance of outdoor environments and how to intentionally design your outdoor space to promote learning, engagement, and active play.

  • Describe the importance of outdoor play for all children.
  • Identify ways to create a safe, diverse, and developmentally appropriate outdoor learning environment that supports all children’s learning.
  • Identify activities and learning experiences in outdoor environments that can serve as extensions of the indoor learning environment.



The Importance of Outdoor Play

What do you remember about playing outdoors when you were younger? What did you enjoy most? What did you enjoy the least? 

Outdoor environments are a perfect place for children to explore, gather information, and experiment. “Nature is the natural teacher for all of humankind. Children’s connection to nature is primary, timeless, and sacred,” (Duncan, Martin, & Kreth, 2016, p. 3). Young children love to investigate the natural world. They enjoy using their senses to learn about plants, animals, and insects. Outdoor play is wonderful because it encourages exploration of movement—running, skipping, hopping, swinging are all movements that support children’s learning. 

When the outdoor environment is safe and free from hazards, then you (as a family child care provider) do not need to constantly worry about the possibility of injuries. This will enable you to enjoy the outdoors with the children. The outdoor space can be intentionally arranged by incorporating safety, design, opportunities for inquiry, space, and accessibility.

Outdoor play encourages better physical and mental health. Children’s immunity, regular sleeping patterns, and a greater sense of well-being can be attributed to outdoor play.

Creating an Outdoor Learning Environment

Outdoor learning environments should be designed with the same intentionality as indoor learning environments. They should evoke, inspire and motivate, and must accommodate the needs of a wide range of children’s ages and abilities. The authors of the Family Child Care Environment Rating Scale recommends that the outdoor area be used at least one hour per day year-round (weather permitting).

Infants and toddlers

Infants and toddlers will need constant supervision while outdoors. Using all of their senses to learn, they will, for example, often try to taste things they have found. It is necessary that all potential choking hazards be considered, and that infants and toddlers be watched at all times. Outdoor equipment should safely support the developmental needs of infants and toddlers.

The Community Investment Collaborative for Kids Resource Guide (Pardee, Gillman, & Larson, 2005) recommends specific elements for outdoor spaces used by infants and toddlers:

  • Places for eating or relaxing outdoors in the shade
  • Safe spaces for crawling, such as on grass or an outdoor blanket
  • Bucket swings at a safe distance from other play
  • Rocking toys that children can sit inside
  • Pushing or riding wheeled toys
  • Safe water and sand with simple props
  • Nontoxic plants
  • Age-appropriate climbing equipment
  • Riding toys without pedals


At this age, children can be more independent, although they still need adult supervision on climbing equipment. Preschoolers love to run, jump, hop, swing, climb, and throw. They are working on large-motor skills and enjoy the freedom of practicing these skills outdoors. Spencer and Wright (2015) describe the outdoor space as an extension of what children enjoy indoors. The outdoor space can include: 

  • Balls, beanbags, hoops, props, and costumes
  • Anchored play equipment—climbing structures, slides, swings, rocking toys, seesaw
  • Natural materials—trees, stumps, boulders, long grass, water, pebbles, vines, plants
  • Wheeled toys—tricycles, scooters, wagons, push toys, helmets
  • Manipulative equipment—jump ropes, balls, Hula-Hoops
  • Sandbox and mud table
  • Water
  • Music and movement—log drums, rain sticks, and other instruments
  • Parachute
  • Balance beams and stepping-stones for practicing balancing, turning, stopping, starting
  • Playhouses and other structures
  • Flower or vegetable gardens
  • Loose parts that encourage children to build, sort, create, imagine, such as pinecones, crates, logs, branches
  • Raised deck or stage where children can read together, act out stories, sing, or dance
  • Plastic golf clubs and plastic balls


School-age children are able to work together and may enjoy sports and team activities. They can learn the rules and cooperate to play games. They enjoy taking “indoor” activities (e.g., art, science, drama) outside:

  • Basketball hoop
  • Soccer balls, tennis balls, playground balls, etc.
  • Tennis rackets
  • Badminton set
  • Deck or raised stage to create plays, perform music
  • Climbing bars and monkey bars
  • Slide
  • Hula-Hoops
  • Bicycles, scooters, helmets
  • Balance beam
  • Flower or vegetable garden
  • Parachute
  • Nature observations (creating an insect display, mixing soils and water, etc.)

Supporting Engagement

The environment should be seen as the third teacher, according to the Reggio Emilia Approach (Wurm, 2005). Everyone can benefit from being engaged outdoors—fresh air, sunshine, open space, exposure to nature and early experiences with natural materials. They have opportunities to grow and learn, affecting all areas of development. Caregivers can support infants, toddlers, and children by reflecting on the importance of outdoor experiences, asking open-ended questions, and planning ways to include these experiences in learning. Specifically, caregivers can ask themselves:

  • As I observe children outdoors, do I notice differences in their attention and learning? How are they supported?
  • How does each child or youth experience the different spaces or areas that have been designed outdoors?
  • In what ways do I create areas of inquiry, curiosity, challenge, wonderment, and movement? What ideas are emerging?
  • How can I support their ideas with provocations?

Additionally, you should consider how to extend the learning that takes place indoors to the outdoor environment. Take note of the ideas, materials, or supports that are used by the children and think about how these can meet developmental goals and encourage similar learning in your outdoor space. Think about the open-ended ideas you can offer children outside. Incorporating these types of ideas brings about new experiences that might facilitate making connections or new discoveries. Consider the following suggestions (Duncan, Martin, & Kreth, 2016):

  • Play in the dirt.
  • Stomp in a puddle.
  • Look for creatures under a rock or in the grass.
  • Hold a dandelion and blow upon it.
  • Look for a four-leaf clover.
  • Toss autumn leaves in the air.
  • Feel a tree’s bark, branches, and leaves.
  • Gather interesting sticks from the ground.
  • Collect pinecones.
  • Bury your toes in mud.
  • Walk barefoot in the early morning dew.
  • Stomp in a puddle.
  • Float a leaf in a puddle of water.


As you watch this video, take notes about how providers creatively encourage learning in the outdoor environment.

Outdoor Activities 1

See examples of activities in outdoor spaces.

In this second video, you will hear detailed explanations about how these providers support children's learning at various ages and stages of development while offering different types of experiences and materials outdoors.

Outdoor Activities 2


Looking at Your Outdoor Space

Just as you plan your indoor environment, it is necessary to intentionally plan your outdoor environment. Ideally, your outdoor space has areas of sunlight and shade. The area should be comfortable so children of mixed ages can engage in play that is developmentally appropriate. Encourage families to dress their child for play and the weather and to bring an extra weather-appropriate change of clothing. You may explain that the children will play outdoors for some portion of the day (weather permitting). As part of your daily routine, check the outdoor space each day for safety hazards. After children leave for the evening, take a look at the outdoor space and prepare it for the next day (e.g., cover the sandbox, empty water containers, etc.).

If you are caring for a child with a disability, you will need to think carefully about their mobility and safety in the outdoor environment. Talk with the child’s parents and therapists (if applicable) about your outdoor environment and how best to meaningfully include the child in outdoor play activities. With accommodations, many children with special needs can enjoy active, outdoor play.

What Children Can Learn Outdoors

Just as you plan for children’s indoor experiences, you also plan for their outdoor experiences. Observe the children you care for and note what they are interested in when outdoors. Help them explore different textures, listen to the sounds in your yard, identify animals and their tracks, and have opportunities to enjoy physical movement.

Incorporating elements from the indoor environment to the outdoors is essential. There are many ways in which this can be achieved. You can include the following areas, depending on the age or stage of development:

  • A calming space
  • Dramatic play
  • Art
  • Writing
  • Science/Technology/ Engineering/ Math (STEM)
  • Sensory
  • Reading/Language Arts

There are many positive physical and psychological benefits to playing outdoors:

  • Children learn to enjoy nature and find beauty in the outdoors.
  • Children learn how to create and act out stories that involve movement and music.
  • Children learn the joy of physical movement and gain self-confidence in using their bodies.
  • Children become aware of the importance of caring for the environment.
  • Children experience the beauty and wonder of the natural world.


To make learning successful in your outdoor environment:

Plan: Make your time outside a learning experience by planning fun and creative activities that use your outdoor environment to enhance children’s natural inquiry. You can use children’s current interests to help plan more engaging experiences.

Organize: Maintain a clean and organized environment by creating space for materials to be stored when not in use. Help children and youth think about the best spaces to carry out their ideas so they do not disrupt others or make experiences unsafe.

Try: Don’t be afraid to bring the indoors out. Fresh air is always a good thing for children. Conduct some everyday activities, like reading or eating, outdoors for a change of scenery.


Use the Outdoor Space Activities and Questions document to help you reflect on your outdoor space. After reading and completing, review your written responses with your trainer, coach, or family child care administrator.


Use the Outdoor Space Activities and Questions document to help you reflect on your outdoor space. After reading and completing, review your written responses with your trainer, coach, or family child care administrator.


Nontoxic Plants:
Plants that would not cause an adverse or harmful reaction if consumed or touched
Family Child Care Environment Rating Scale:
Abbreviated FCCERS-R (for “revised edition”), this tool is used to rate the quality of family child care environments and is often used in state child care quality rating and improvement systems


True or false? The outdoors is an extension of the indoor learning environment, and outdoor learning environments should be designed with the same intentionality as indoor learning environments.
The positive benefits to playing outdoors are. . .
A child's parent tells you they do not believe their child will be ready for kindergarten because they are spending too much time “playing outside.” Select the response that best addresses this parent’s concern.
References & Resources

Armstrong, L. J. (2012). Family child care homes: Creative spaces for children to learn. Redleaf Press.

Duncan, S., Martin, J. & Kreth, R. (2016). Rethinking the classroom landscape: Creating environments that connect young children, families, and communities. Gryphon House, Inc.

Frost, J. & Sutterby, J. (2017). Our proud heritage: Outdoor play is essential to whole child development. Young Children, 72(3).

Harms, T., Cryer, D., and Clifford, R. (2019). Family child care environment rating scale (3rd ed.). Teacher’s College Press.

Pardee, M., Gillman, A., & Larson, C. (2005). Creating playgrounds for early childhood facilities (Community investment collaborative for kids resource guide 4). Local Initiatives Support Corporation.

Pre-K Printable Fun. (2018). 30+ outdoor learning spaces.

Ranson, A. (2016). Inspiring outdoor play spaces. 

Spencer, K. H., & Wright, P. M. (2015). Quality outdoor play spaces for preschoolers. Teaching YoungChildren, 8(5), 18-20.

Tinkergarten. (2019). Tinkergarten activities. 

Wiedel-Lubinski, M. (2019). Nature-based mindfulness for more calm & peaceful kids. National Association for the Education of Young Children.

Wurm, J.P., (2005). Working in the Reggio Way: A beginner’s guide for American teachers. Redleaf Press.