- Describe the importance of outdoor play for infants and toddlers.
- Identify ways of creating safe, diverse and developmentally appropriate outdoor learning environments to support infant and toddler development and learning.
- Explore what infants and toddlers can learn in outdoor learning environments.
The Importance of Outdoor Play
What do you remember from playing outdoors when you were younger? What did you enjoy? What didn’t you enjoy?
Outdoor environments are the perfect space for infants and toddlers to explore, gather information and experiment. Infants and toddlers are amazing young scientists ready to learn using all of their senses!
The outdoor environment offers experiences that children simply cannot have indoors. The outdoor environment supports busy movement, which helps to strengthen children’s muscles, hearts and lungs. Exposure to the outdoor environment may also foster children’s health via strengthened immunity, more regular sleeping patterns and a sense of well-being. Outdoor play also encourages creativity and time for what some think of as indoor activities. For instance, some of us like to take a book to the park or beach on a warm and sunny day. Others paint and draw outdoors. Or perhaps some sit and watch people walk by while enjoying the sights, sounds, smells and breeze.
Being outdoors provides enjoyable experiences that are critical for infants’ and toddlers’ overall development.
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 young infants, crawling infants, beginning walkers and active climbers.
As our youngest scientists and explorers, infants and toddlers require constant supervision while they are outdoors. Using all of their senses to learn, they will, for example, often try to taste things they have uncovered. It is necessary that all potential choking hazards be considered and that caregivers remain in close proximity.
Because infants and toddlers are still mastering balance, it is also important to offer a surface that allows them to move around easily and provides a soft landing. Surfaces that support infants, toddlers and caregivers provide a level of comfort (for example, not too hot in the summer or too cold in the winter) and have enough space for children to move around without hitting sharp edges.
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 infant and toddler outdoor spaces (p. 13):
- Places for eating or relaxing outdoors in the shade
- Convenient access to a diapering area and hand washing
- Safe spots for crawling, such as on grass
- A non-metal slide with a gentle slope accessed by a low climbing ramp with steps and a handrail
- Bucket swings at a safe distance from other play
- Short tunnels and peek-a-boo places
- Comfortable seating at various levels
- Rocking toys that children can sit inside
- Pushing or riding wheeled toys
- Safe water and sand with simple props
A safe outdoor learning environment for infants and toddlers is the result of informed planning and intentional design, developmentally appropriate equipment and activities, close supervision, a focus on engagement, and planned activities to support development and learning.
Follow your program’s safety guidelines to ensure all equipment complies with safety standards. Be sure to use the safety checklists from the Safety Course or your program to monitor and check the safety and security of your program’s outdoor learning environment.
Engagement and Learning in an Outdoor Learning Environment
Infants and toddlers benefit from the outdoors — fresh air, sunshine, open space, and exposure to nature. They have opportunities to grow and learn, affecting all areas of development. Caregivers can support infants and toddlers by reflecting on the importance of outdoor experiences and planning ways to include these experiences in learning. Specifically, caregivers can ask themselves:
- As I observe infants and toddlers outdoors, do I notice differences in their attention and learning? What do I think about that?
- How do infants and toddlers experience the different spaces or areas we have designed outdoors?
- How does each infant and toddler develop while outside?
- In what ways do we create areas of curiosity, challenge, wonderment and movement for infants and toddlers?
As caregivers think about each infant’s and toddler’s experience outdoors, they can also reflect on their own experiences of being outdoors, as well as memories of being outdoors as a young child.
While children of all ages can enjoy the outdoor learning environment, caregivers should consider the various ages and developmental stages of the infants and toddlers in their care. Doing so helps caregivers continue to meet the specific needs of infants and toddlers and provide intentional opportunities for them to actively use their senses as they explore the world.
Watch this video and notice how caregivers support the needs of children at different ages and development while offering different types of experiences and materials outdoors.
Caregivers should also take time to understand what an outdoor learning environment means to families and try to identify strong beliefs, values and perceived risks. Outdoor experiences can feel unsafe and cause uncertainty for some families. Other families may feel very strongly that being outdoors is an important part of their infant’s or toddler’s day and wish that they spent the majority of the day outdoors. When caregivers have knowledge of and sensitivity to what is important to families, they will be better equipped to create meaningful outdoor learning environments while providing supportive care for infants and toddlers.
Caregivers thoughtfully plan and organize for learning in outdoor environments just as they do indoor environments. Watch the video below. What do you notice about the outdoor environment that helps provide these infants and toddlers with a sense of security and opportunities for development and learning?
You can do many things to enhance and help infants and toddlers learn and feel comfortable in an outdoor environment. Consider:
- Using swings and benches to help create a comfortable area outdoors where you can hold, feed, or read to young infants.
- Creating opportunities to experiment with water using tubs, sprinkler, gutters, and sprayers.
- Pointing out interesting sounds and sights, such as a bird chirping.
- Growing nontoxic plants indoors and outdoors.
- Taking seeds from fruits served at lunchtime and planting them with toddlers.
- Lying on the grass and watching the clouds.
- Making an outdoor art center by adding easels, chalk, and paintbrushes.
- Creating different outdoors surface to jump and balance, such as beams, logs, and stumps.
- Adding a platform or playhouse, to support pretend play.
Download and print the attachment, Outdoor Learning Environment: Vignette. Read, reflect and answer the four questions and then share your responses with a trainer, coach or supervisor.
Think about your outdoor play spaces. Download and print the Outdoor Learning Environment Checklist or use a checklist provided by your supervisor or program. Walk around your play space with a trainer, coach, or supervisor. Think about the strengths and needs of your space.
If you are a new staff member, you can use the Outdoor Learning Environment Plan to start thinking about the experiences, materials and equipment you plan to provide in your outdoor learning space. When you are finished, discuss your plan with a trainer, coach, or supervisor.
You may also look at the Head Start Body Start Play Space Assessment ( https://eclkc.ohs.acf.hhs.gov/hslc/tta-system/teaching/eecd/nature-based-learning/Create%20and%20Naturalize%20a%20Play%20Space/play-space-assessment-preschool.pdf ) to think more about the materials, structures, and features in the outdoor learning spaces your provide. See the physical course for more information.
Dodge, D., Rudick, S., Berke, K. (2006). The Creative Curriculum for Infants, Toddlers and Twos, (2nd ed.) Washington DC: Teaching Strategies, Inc.
Greenman, J. (2005). Caring Spaces, Learning Places: Children’s Environments that Work. Exchange Press Inc. https://www.childcareexchange.com/catalog/product/caring-spaces-learning-places-digital/4900402/
Greenman, J., Stonehouse, A., & Schweikert, G. (2007). Prime Times: A Handbook for Excellence in Infant and Toddler Programs, (2nd ed.). St. Paul: Redleaf Press.
Resources for Teaching and Learning about the Natural World. (2008). YC Young Children, 63(1), 42-43.
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 Co.
Playground Information to Use with the Environment Rating Scales. (2011). FPG Child Development Institute of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Retrieved from http://ers.fpg.unc.edu/sites/ers.fpg.unc.edu/files/playground%20revised%2010-28-10.pdf
Supporting Outdoor Play and Exploration for Infants and Toddlers. (2013). Early Heady Start National Resource Center. Retrieved from http://eclkc.ohs.acf.hhs.gov/hslc/tta-system/ehsnrc/docs/ehs-ta-paper-14-outdoor-play.pdf