- 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.
- Explore what children can learn in outdoor learning environments.
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. Young children love to investigate the natural world. They love using their senses to learn about plants, animals, and insects. Outdoor play is wonderful because people are born to move—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 don’t need to constantly worry about injuries. You are free to enjoy the outdoors with the children. The intentional way you arrange the outdoor space will make it fun and carefree for the children.
Outdoor play encourages better physical and mental health. Children’s immunity, more 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 must accommodate the needs of a wide range of children’s ages. The authors of the Family Child Care Environment Rating Scale, Revised Edition (FCCERS-R) recommend that the outdoor area be used at least one hour per day year-round (weather permitting).
Infants and toddlers
They 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:
- 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
- Music and movement—log drums, rain sticks, and other instruments
- 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 pine cones, 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 play games with rules. 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
- Bicycles, scooters, helmet
- Balance beam
- Flower or vegetable garden
- Nature observations (creating an insect display, mixing soils and water, etc.)
As you watch this video, take notes about how providers creatively encourage learning in the outdoor environment.
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.
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. 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.).
Draw your outdoor space on a piece of paper. On colored sticky notes, write down the activities you plan to do with the children in that space. Also include notes that describe the activities your family members do in that space (e.g., outdoor barbecue, picnic table, work bench). Think carefully about how you can accommodate both the children’s and your family’s outdoor activities. Now place the sticky notes in the areas of your outdoor space where the activities are likely to take place. Be sure to think about how you will provide close supervision in those areas. Just as you do inside, you need to be able to see all of the children outdoors. Well-made and safe outdoor structures, along with close adult supervision, result in fewer injuries and accidents.
Use your drawing and activity notes to plan the environment. What materials will you need for the outdoor activities? Can some indoor materials be brought outdoors?
If you are caring for a child with special needs, 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.
Some of the older children may enjoy helping younger children play outdoors. They can be partners planting in the garden, pushing them on the swing, teaching them to play hopscotch, or “painting” the sidewalk with a brush and bucket of water.
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.
As children learn about nature and the environment, they become aware of how important it is to care for the earth. They learn to be careful stewards of our natural resources. A well-planned outdoor space can bring children of different ages together in collaborative play and learning. Children learn lessons that could never be understood from only reading or watching videos—they experience the beauty and wonder of our natural world.
There are many examples of outdoor play environments for young children. Explore this list of online resources for ideas about engaging outdoor play environments.
Resource List: Outdoor Spaces in Child Care Settings
Visit the following online resources for ideas about different ways to use outdoor spaces with mixed-age groups of children. Make notes or bookmark the sites. You may find other online resources to add to your list.
Videos of Outdoor Play Spaces
- Cities Connecting Children to Nature
Nature Connection in Early Childhood Education
- Pinterest: Outdoor Play and Playspaces
Pinterest Images of Creative Outdoor Play Spaces
- Outdoor Play is Essential to Whole Child Development
NAEYC Article About Outdoor Play
- National Wildlife Federation and Natural Learning Initiative
Nature Play at Home: A Guide for Boosting Your Children's Healthy Development and Creativity
The following list of questions will help you reflect on your outdoor space. After reading and completing, review your written responses with your trainer, coach or family child care administrator.
Armstrong, L. J. (2012). Family Child Care Homes: Creative spaces for children to learn. St. Paul, MN: Redleaf Press.
Frost, J and Sutterby, J. (2017). Our Proud Heritage: Outdoor Play is Essential to Whole Child Development. Young Children, 72(3). Accessed at https://www.naeyc.org/resources/pubs/yc/jul2017/outdoor-play-child-development
Harms, T., Cryer, D., and Clifford, R. (2007). Family Child Care Environment Rating Scale, revised edition. New York: Teacher’s College Press.
Let the Children Play (2013). Reggio-Inspired: Outdoor Environments
Mountain top Kids (2013). Videos of Outdoor Play Spaces. Accessed at http://www.bing.com/videos/search?q=Videos+of+outdoor+play+spaces&view=detail&mid=296D61F067D037ED3A12296D61F067D037ED3A12&FORM=VIRE
Pardee, M., Gillman, A., & Larson, C. (2005). Creating Playgrounds for Early Childhood Facilities (Community investment collaborative for kids resource guide 4). New York: Local Initiatives Support Corporation.
Pinterest: Outdoor Play and Playspaces. Accessed at https://www.pinterest.com/search/pins/?q=Creative%20Outdoor%20Play%20Spaces%20childcare&rs=typed&term_meta=Creative%7Ctyped&term_meta=Outdoor%7Ctyped&term_meta=Play%7Ctyped&term_meta=Spaces%7Ctyped&term_meta=childcare%7Ctyped
Pre-K Printable Fun. (2018). 30+ Outdoor Learning Spaces. Retrieved from https://www.prekprintablefun.com/home/outdoor-play-spaces
Spencer, K. H., & Wright, P. M. (2015). Quality Outdoor Play Spaces for Preschoolers. Teaching Young Children, 8(5), 18-20.