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The Outdoor Environment: Designing For Learning

Learning occurs both indoors and out. Outdoor learning environments offer preschoolers opportunities to explore and learn. This lesson will focus on designing safe outdoor spaces to promote learning, engagement, and active play.

  • Describe the outdoor space as a learning environment.
  • Identify features of outdoor spaces that help children learn.
  • Design your own safe outdoor space to maximize learning and support engagement.



You can do many things to help children experience nature and learn in the outdoors. Children spend as much as two hours per day outdoors in many programs. This is valuable time for children to develop their large muscles and sophisticated play skills. Much of what you do in the classroom can be easily translated to the outdoor environment. You do that by incorporating safety, design, space and accessibility.


Evaluate your outdoor learning environments. 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. The Safety course contains detailed information regarding what to check in outdoor environments to assure children’s safety prior to outdoor play.

In some settings, your playground may be used by the community during the evening; perhaps your program shares a community park. Even if your playground is protected by a fence, it is still possible that hazardous materials could find their way onto the playground. Before you take children outside, you must be vigilant about inspecting the playground each day. Look for:

  • Debris (glass, cigarette butts, litter, building supplies)
  • Animal excrement and other foreign material
  • Mulch that is spread too thin
  • Standing water, ice or snow
  • Surfaces that are too hot or cold for children to touch safely
  • Natural objects that might cause harm (sharp rocks, stumps, roots, branches)
  • Unsafe insects (anthills, beehives, wasp nests)
  • Ditches, holes, wells and traps
  • Exposed power lines or utility equipment

Remember to check the temperature of play surfaces. Metal or plastic slides, benches and poured concrete surfaces can get very hot and very cold. Inspect surfaces for cracks caused by temperature changes or water damage.

You should begin each day by carefully inspecting outdoor play areas and equipment. This will help prevent major injuries or accidents. Walk around your outdoor play area and use the safety checklist provided by your program or the one in the Safety course. Talk about what you see with a trainer, coach or supervisor.


Carefully design outdoor learning areas to support a full range of children’s play and activities. You can create interest areas, much as you do for your indoor space. For preschool, these areas might include sand, water, wheeled toys, games, construction, woodworking, quiet activities, science and nature (Dodge et al., 2010). Many of the same materials you provide indoors can be used to promote engagement outdoors.

Well designed outdoor learning area

An outdoor quiet activities interest area, for example, could consist of baskets of books in the shade under a tree. An outdoor dramatic play interest area could incorporate props such as blankets, picnic baskets, plastic dishes, utensils and dress-up clothes. You can also incorporate traditional outdoor toys into these interest areas. For example, you could create an outdoor art or writing interest area with sidewalk chalk, or you could incorporate bubble solution and wands of various shapes and sizes into an outdoor discovery/science interest area. Another idea would be to set up an outdoor science and nature center in which children can investigate materials found outdoors (e.g., leaves, sticks, seed pods) using magnifying glasses, scissors, etc. Found natural materials could also be used in an outdoor art interest area in which children can trace, draw or make rubbings or prints of these materials.

Caregiver with preschoolersPreschool girl playing with bubblesCaregiver playing with preschoolers


Make the most of the space you 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. Get creative! Your local home improvement store can be a great resource. Consider filling plastic rain gutters with dirt and letting children use them as planters or sensory bins. Ask volunteers to install bird feeders or raised garden beds.

Your outdoor play space will foster creative play if you include “loose parts,” or open-ended play materials (recycled cardboard boxes, crates, PVC pipes, milk cartons) children can use for construction (Maxwell, Mitchell, & Evans, 2008). Enclosed spaces (e.g., playhouses, forts) that are a fixed part of the playground—or, even better, that have been constructed by children themselves—foster dramatic play. As much as possible, providing play equipment that can “become” multiple things in children’s play tends to foster creativity. If you have the opportunity to help pick play equipment, try to avoid items and structures that embody one idea (e.g., a pirate ship climber), and instead choose items that can take on multiple identities (e.g., more simple play structures).

Preschool boys play with shovels

It is also important to include equipment that will help children work on their gross-motor skills. Gross-motor skills are those that involve large muscle movements of the body and include running, jumping, throwing and maintaining balance. Fixed playground equipment is not necessary for children to experience high levels of physical activity outside. In fact, children are often most physically active when they play with portable equipment such as balls, bicycles, hula hoops, etc. (Kreichauf et al., 2012).

Preschool boys ride a tricycle


Just as in the classroom, you must ensure your outdoor spaces are organized for independence, easy use and learning. Children must be able to easily access materials and equipment. Outdoor paths, walkways and stairs should be clearly marked and free of obstruction. It is important to make sure gross-motor play can happen safely in one area without disrupting play in another area. For example, a tricycle path should not go right through an area where children are drawing with chalk. You also want to separate the quiet activities (art, chalk, blocks, sand) from the loud and active activities (ball play, bikes, running). Also, remember to include smocks in strategic areas; offering smocks or old shirts can help some children (and families) feel more comfortable with messy outdoor art, sensory or science ideas (e.g., mud play or exploration).

The size and level of gross-motor equipment must be developmentally appropriate for the children in your classroom. There should be enough gross-motor equipment (e.g., bikes) that children can use the equipment without a long wait. Outdoor toys such as balls and props for dramatic play can be placed in easy access bins, buckets or containers. This will also make it easy for children to help clean up when it is time to go back inside. As discussed for indoor environments, labeling the baskets or bins you use outdoors can facilitate clean-up and create a print-rich environment.

Consider the needs of individual children. Some children, especially those with disabilities or special needs, may have difficulties in the outdoor environment. You can make adaptations for these children just as you would in the classroom. You can adjust the materials and spaces (install a wheelchair-accessible swing, install railings, lower a water table) to best fit their needs. As discussed in the Indoor Environment lesson, talk with children’s families and your trainer, coach or supervisor to determine what modifications may be necessary. Also, because as outdoor play spaces can let children use their louder voices and “let loose,” make sure you have calming spaces available outside, perhaps with an accompanying bin of soothing materials. For more information, see the Kids Included Together materials (


Watch how preschool programs make the most of outdoor space.

Outdoor Spaces for Learning

Watch how outdoor spaces can be an extension of the classroom.



Offer a range of opportunities for outdoor play:

  • Offer dramatic play, sand and water, blocks and music and movement outdoors.
  • Find natural opportunities for discovery and science. Notice the insects, animals, mud and natural materials on your playground.
  • Provide materials that allow for large- and small-muscle play. Have a variety of bicycles, balls and other toys.
  • Offer interesting and unique experiences: plant a garden, build a stage for plays or create an obstacle course.


Sometimes, playgrounds need a little help. Watch these videos and use the tools to consider ways to help these teachers improve their spaces. Download and print the Making the Most of Your Space activity. Answer the questions and share your responses with your trainer, coach or supervisor. Then compare your answers to the suggested responses.

Making the Most of Your Space Activity

How could this space do a better job promoting learning?


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. Consider the strengths and needs of your space. Then download and print the Making Your Space Work guide. Save it as a resource to help brainstorm when children face challenges on the playground.

If you are a new staff member, you can use the Outdoor Learning Environment Plan to start thinking about the interest areas, activities, materials and equipment you would plan to provide in your outdoor learning space. You can use the Making Your Space Work guide as a resource to help you plan your space. When you are finished, discuss your plan with a trainer, coach or supervisor.


An adaptation is a change you make to the environment or materials that helps a child be more successful
Enclosed spaces:
Small spaces with multiple entrances and exits (e.g., playhouses, forts) separated from the rest of the play space by walls or partitions that tend to foster dramatic play. For supervision and safety, these should be open enough to provide good visibility
Fine-motor skills:
The ability to use fingers and hands well
Gross-motor skills:
Gross-motor skills are those that involve large muscle movements of the body, and include running, jumping, throwing and maintaining balance
Loose parts:
Open-ended play materials children can use for construction, such as recycled cardboard boxes, crates, PVC pipes and milk cartons


True or false? Loose parts such as PVC pipes, cardboard boxes and crates are unsafe for outdoor play and should not be used in the outdoor learning environment.
Which of the following is true about outdoor interest areas?
Finish this statement: Outdoor interest areas that foster gross-motor development include…
References & Resources

American Academy of Pediatrics, American Public Health Association, National Resource Center for Health and Safety in Child Care and Early Education. 2011. Caring for Our Children: National health and Safety Performance Standards; Guidelines for Early Care and Education Programs (3rd ed.). Elk Grove Village, IL: American Academy of Pediatrics; Washington, DC: American Public Health Association. Retrieved from .

Cryer, D., Harms, T., & Riley, C. (2003). All about the ECERS-R: A Detailed Guide in Words and Pictures to be used with ECERS-R. Kaplan Early Learning Co.

DeBoard, K., Moore, R., Hestenes, L., Cosco, N., & McGinnis, J. (2003). Making the Most of Outdoor Time with Preschool Children. North Carolina State University: North Carolina Cooperative Extension Service. Retrieved from

Dodge, D. T., Heroman, C., Berke, K., Bickart, T., Colker, L., Jones, C., Copley, J., & Dighe, J. (2010). The Creative Curriculum for Preschool (5th ed.). Bethesda, MD: Teaching Strategies, Inc.

Kreichauf, S., Wildgruber, A., Krombholz, H., Gibson, E. L., Vögele, C., Nixon, C. A., Douthwaite, W., Moore, H. J., Manios, Y., Summerbell, C. D. (2012). Critical narrative review to identify educational strategies promoting physical activity in preschool. Obesity Reviews, 13, 96-105.

Maxwell, L. E., Mitchell, M. R., & Evans, G. W. (2008). Effects of play equipment and loose parts on preschool children's outdoor play behavior: An observational study and design intervention. Children Youth and Environments, 18(2), 36-63. 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.

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.