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The Outdoor Environment - Helping Staff Extend the Learning Outdoors

This lesson will help you support staff members as they include the outdoors as an extension of the learning environment. You will learn to ensure that the staff members have the knowledge and resources to effectively use the outdoors as an integral and rich learning environment across the curriculum.

  • With trainers and coaches, teach staff members the importance of viewing the outdoors as an extension of the learning environment.
  • Provide staff with the resources to effectively use the outdoors as an integral and rich learning environment across the curriculum.
  • Provide feedback on outdoor learning environments.


Children’s experiences in nature and the outdoors support many aspects of their development (see the attachment in the “Learn” section for more information). In many programs, children spend as much as two hours per day outdoors. This is valuable time for children to develop their large muscles and sophisticated play skills. Much of what is done indoors can be easily adapted to the outdoor environment. There are four key considerations for working with staff as they make the outdoors an integral and rich learning environment for children aged birth through 12 years: safety, design, space, and accessibility. These four considerations are discussed in-depth here.



Evaluate the outdoor environments regularly. Work with staff to make sure they do their own daily safety inspections before children use the space. Have a system in place so that staff members know:

  • Who is responsible for outdoor safety checklists, especially for programs where outdoor spaces are shared among classrooms
  • How safety checklists or inspections are documented (i.e., what forms to use and where to store them)
  • What they should do if a concern is found

Make sure the equipment is safe and the environment is free from preventable risks. You must consider fall zones, surfacing, access to shade, and the condition of materials and equipment. See the Safety lesson for more information. When you have concerns about the environment or children’s safety, address them immediately.


Outdoor spaces can offer many of the same interest areas and activities as the child-development or school-age program. For child-development programs, you might encourage the staff to include sand, water, wheeled toys, games, construction, dramatic play, woodworking, quiet activities, science and nature in their outdoor spaces (Colker, Dodge, & Heroman, 2004). For school-age programs, many of the same interests can be developed outdoors. The addition of gardening, sports, fitness equipment, music, and natural habitats for exploration can help school-age children learn beyond the school day.

Just like in the classroom or school-age program, staff must make sure outdoor spaces are organized for independence, engagement, and learning. With the help of trainers and coaches, it is important to make sure gross-motor play can happen safely in one area without disrupting activities in another area. For example, a basketball game should not be played through children who are drawing with chalk. You also want to make sure the quiet activities (art, chalk, blocks, sand, reading under a tree) are separate from the loud and active activities (ball play, bikes, running).

An outdoor space with a sign reading Building Construction Area A


Your trainers or coaches should be prepared to help staff make the most of the space they have. Not all outdoor spaces are ideal, but that doesn’t mean you have to settle for a playground with only metal play structures and asphalt. You, trainers, or coaches can help staff brainstorm and get creative. Your local home improvement store can be a great resource. Consider helping staff fill plastic rain gutters with dirt and letting children use them as planters or sensory bins. Wading pools can become sand boxes or planters. Recycled cardboard boxes, crates, PVC pipes, and milk cartons can all become amazing construction objects on the playground. Also, look into resources your organization can share with staff and families. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s handbook on creating schoolyard habitats is a great example.

As a Program Manager, you are a leader who can coordinate making the most of the outdoor spaces available to you. You can help organize a group of volunteers, perhaps with the help of families in your program, to install bird feeders, bird or bat houses, raised garden beds, pollinator gardens or other features to increase children or youth’s engagement outdoors. As discussed in the Materials lesson, don’t be afraid to ask for donations from local area businesses or programs.


There are two aspects to accessibility: (1) making sure children have access to resources they need outdoors and (2) making sure the environment is accessible to all children.

First, make sure children’s basic needs are met outdoors. Make sure there is easy access to restrooms, drinking water, and shade.

Second, consider the needs of individual children. Some children, especially those with dis/abilities, may have difficulties in the outdoor environment. Equipment may be inaccessible to children with motor impairments, the area may be frightening to children with visual impairments, or the amount of choice may be overwhelming to children with developmental delays. You can help staff make adaptations for these children just as you would in the classroom or program. This will be covered in more depth in Lesson Six.

Supervise & Support

As you do with indoor environments, you should have an active role in making sure the outdoor environments provide a foundation for the curriculum. Help staff members make the most of the space you have. Trainers or coaches will be the ones primarily responsible for observing how children and adults use the space and providing feedback to teachers. But you can reinforce these messages and provide oversight by passing through your outdoor spaces a few times a week and by reviewing the environmental rating scales or checklists used in your program (see Lesson One for more information). Then, with your trainers or coaches, you can get involved in helping make the outdoor space meet children’s needs. For example, you could:

  • Organize a campaign to ask for donations of materials for a garden, dramatic play area, stage, or natural habitat.
  • If your climate permits during some or all seasons, consider developing an outdoor classroom. Try flipping your approach to weather: Only go indoors during inclement weather.
  • Keep sets of boots, ponchos, hats, gloves and other items available for staff and children to use to encourage outdoor activity in all kinds of weather.
  • Make sure there are plenty of outdoor storage spaces for supplies and equipment. Model cleanliness habits by keeping the storage and play spaces tidy.
  • Ask children questions about their outdoor play. Involve older children or families in identifying problems and coming up with solutions.
  • Advocate for outdoor play spaces and for time in the outdoors for all children and staff.
  • Talk to staff and families about the importance of outdoor spaces. Consider holding some staff meetings or professional development outdoors.

As outdoor environments are often shared across classrooms, your coordination and leadership are central here; you must help facilitate a collective vision among staff for the outdoor spaces. Model curiosity and problem solving as you work with staff members. When a space needs arranging or rearranging, with the help of trainers or coaches bring all relevant staff members together to list all the activities, events, and materials that the space should accommodate. Use that list to set goals for the space and clearly define spaces that serve different functions. Also, keep open lines of communication between staff members who work different shifts in the same space. It is important that all staff members understand the purposes behind environmental arrangement. For shared outdoor spaces, make sure to open the lines of communication among all adults who share the space. At times you may need to facilitate communication and negotiation about shared outdoor spaces.

Watch the following videos to see examples of high-quality outdoor environments. Think about how you could work with staff to offer the kinds of experiences seen here.

A Range of: Outdoor Learning Environments

What features of these environments promote learning?

Your program may also have outdoor spaces that staff, children, and families see, but that are not used for play, such as the walkway to your program entrance. These outdoor spaces still represent your program, so you should be sure they are safe, well-maintained, and aesthetically pleasing. You can even consider incorporating children’s or youth’s art or construction ideas in these spaces (e.g., adding a home-made bird feeder, fountain, mural or sculpture).

As a manager, you provide resources that help staff members do their jobs more confidently and more effectively. It is your job to make sure staff have the resources they need by offering a strong curriculum or learning library (see Lesson Two) and securing quality outdoor materials. In Lesson Four, we address the manager’s role in acquiring and organizing materials; the principles discussed there apply to outdoor items as well. With use, balls, riding toys, swings, etc. will need to be replaced or repaired; it is important that you make sure broken materials are removed and that you track what new purchases or repairs are needed.

When you help communicate with families about the learning happening in your program, do not forget to represent the outdoor environment. Work with trainers or coaches to make sure children’s or youth’s experiences outdoors are also shared with families.

Some programs may utilize outdoor spaces that are not exclusive to the child-development center or school-age and youth program, such as a local public park. In these cases, it will be necessary that your staff are trained in securing the safety of the area before children use these spaces, as they are typically more vulnerable to safety concerns, such as broken glass or other debris. It will be your job to work with the necessary parties, such as the local parks and recreation department or school district, to ensure that the outdoor space is well-maintained. You may also need to ensure that staff have ways to transport additional gross- and fine-motor equipment to these spaces, possibly carts or wagons to bring an assortment of balls, bats, jump ropes, chalk, clipboards, books and blankets, etc. Work with your trainers or coaches to help staff know how they can create temporary interest or activity areas even in these kinds of publicly shared spaces.

As discussed in the first Learning Environments lesson, part of your role as manager is looking for patterns on environmental rating tools (e.g., ITERS-3, ECERS-3, SACERS, FCCERS-3) or observation checklists across classrooms and staff to help assure quality. It is important that you review these tools regarding your outdoor environments. Doing so can help you identify staff members who develop and use outdoor spaces in high-quality ways and who might serve as good models for other teachers and caregivers. It can also help you see where classrooms or staff members are lacking in their quality design or use of outdoor environments and help you narrow down what concepts to focus on in professional development or staff meetings.


Sometimes a playground isn’t perfect. It’s still very important that the outdoor space become an extension of the learning environment. Watch this video from a program that has made the most of its outdoor space. What can you learn from this program? What could you help staff members implement in your program?

Download and print the Learning from Others activity. Think about your own program as you watch the video. Then answer the questions and review the suggested responses provided.

Making the Most of Outdoor Spaces: Learning From Others

Example of high quality outdoor spaces to consider


Download and print the following Inventory Checklist to help you evaluate outdoor learning environments for child-development and school-age programs. This is a potential tool you or your trainers or coaches could use to help survey your different outdoor spaces.


The extent to which a play space is appropriate for all children: All children can reach and use equipment, it is convenient to the main facility, and it has necessary features for health and safety
Gross Motor Skills:
Skills that involve large-muscle movements of the body, including running, jumping, throwing, and maintaining balance


True or false? Accessibility in your program means that you ensure children have access to basic resources outdoors such as restrooms, drinking water, and shade.
Which of the following are key factors to consider when working with staff to create an engaging outdoor learning environment?
Finish this statement: You can be creative with your program’s outdoor space by…
References & Resources

Creative Curriculum Solutions. (n.d.). Teaching Strategies.

Harms, T., Cryer, D., Clifford, R. M., & Yazejian, N. (2019). Family Child Care Environment Rating Scale (FCCERS-3). New York: Teachers College Press.

Harms, T., Cryer, D. & Clifford, R. M. (2014). Early Childhood Environment Rating Scale (ECERS-3). New York: Teachers College Press.

Harms, T., Cryer, D., Clifford, R. M., & Yazejian, N.. (2017). Infant/Toddler Environment Rating Scale (ITERS-3). New York: Teachers College Press.

Harms, T., Jacobs, E. V. & White, D. R. (2013). School-Age Care Environment Rating Scale Updated (SACERS). New York: Teachers College Press.

Kolstad, C., Vollherbst, K. & Mullin, K. K. (2011). Schoolyard habitat project guide: a guide for creating schoolyard habitat and outdoor classroom projects. U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service.

Let’s Move. (n.d.). Let’s Move Outside.

Let’s Move. (n.d.). America’s Move to Raise a Healthier Generation of Kids.

Sanders, S. (2002). Active for Life: Developmentally appropriate movement programs for young children. Champaign, IL: Human Kinetics Publishers.

Shillady, A. (n.d.). Spotlight on Young Children and Nature. Washington, DC: National Association for the Education of Young Children.

U.S. National Park Service. (n.d.). Kids in parks.

Video Active Productions. (n.d.). Safe Active Play: A Guide to Avoiding Play Area Hazards (DVD). Washington, DC: National Association for the Education of Young Children.