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Supporting Physical Development: Outdoor Environments and Experiences

Outdoor experiences are equally important as indoor ones for supporting children’s physical development. This lesson provides ideas and recommendations on how you can engage preschoolers in meaningful outdoor experiences that promote their physical development.

  • List examples of ways you can support children's physical development outdoors.
  • Explore resources that provide information about ways you can engage children in physical activity outdoors.
  • List examples of accommodations you can provide in order to support the physical development of children with special learning needs.



Outdoor environments are natural settings for physical activity. In fact, a lot of us may be more likely to associate physical activity with being outdoors. Think about times when you took a walk or a ran in your neighborhood, hiked, or played games in the park, when you explored a nature trail, or time spent gardening and cleaning up your backyard. Those activities probably made you feel good, energized, and even rejuvenated.

Outdoor Physical Activity in Preschool

For preschool children, outdoor physical activity is as important as physical activity inside the classroom. As stated in the Healthy Environments course, all preschool children should have at least two or three opportunities to play outdoors each day, weather permitting (Caring for our Children, 2011). To help children engage and remain active outside, be sure to include a few adult-led games or activities. The total time a preschooler spends outdoors each day should be at least 60 to 90 minutes. Preschool children do not need to be engaged in vigorous physical activity for the entire duration of outdoor time to receive health benefits. Children can benefit from short or moderate bursts of activity, as these short bursts add up over the course of the day.

Safety First!

As a preschool teacher, your utmost priority is the safety of children in your care. Make sure you familiarize yourself with your program’s safety and security policies. Consider the following recommendations from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to help ensure that children are safe outdoors. You may recall some of these from the Safety Environments course.

  • Follow your program’s policies about inspecting play areas to make sure they are safe. Debris, rocks, water, and other hazards should be removed from play areas. 
  • Inspect any toys or equipment you use for outdoor play to ensure they are in good condition. Also, make sure you know how to clean and sanitize the equipment properly. 
  • Be aware of weather conditions and be ready to move children indoors or to a safe area in case of bad weather. 
  • Encourage children to drink plenty of fluids before, during, and after activities. You should offer fluid breaks to children every 30 to 45 minutes, or more frequently during warmer weather. 
  • Follow your program requirements about sunscreen and insect repellent on children. 
  • Make sure children are appropriately dressed for the weather and activities. Communicate with families about any particular dress preferences you may have (e.g., loose-fitting clothing, sneakers, bathing suits). It may be a good idea to remind families that young children often get dirty while playing!
  • Have well-stocked first-aid kits available at all times and follow your program’s policies about using them. 
  • Be aware of your program’s emergency action plan and make sure that staff members working with you are aware of their roles in an emergency situation.

Supporting the Physical Development of All Preschoolers Outdoors

Consider the following scenario:

Shayla, a child with cerebral palsy, joins your classroom. Shayla uses a wheelchair and is independent with maneuvering it throughout her environment.  When you found out that she was joining your classroom, you learned the following facts about cerebral palsy:

  • Children with cerebral palsy have difficulties with movement, balance, coordination, motor planning (remembering and performing steps that allow movement), and postural alignment.
  • Some children with cerebral palsy may also have difficulties with cognition, vision, hearing, speech, or suffer from seizures or other medical conditions.
  • Children with cerebral palsy may have increased muscle tone (stiff muscles), decreased muscle tone (floppy muscles), or a combination of both, and as a result, their movements can be difficult to control. 
  • In children with cerebral palsy the physical impairments listed above often effect one side of the body more than the other.

During outdoor play, children in your classroom like throwing and catching rubber balls. Shayla has a hard time grasping the balls. What are some adaptations you can use to ensure Shayla’s participation in this fun activity with her peers? You may consider the following:

  • Use balls of different sizes and textures. 
  • If Shayla has a hard time catching, try deflating the balls.
  • Have a peer nearby pick up the ball if it falls onto the ground where Shayla cannot reach it. 
  • Try using a net to assist Shayla catching the balls.
  • Use larger, lighter, softer balls to slow the speed and to allow more time for Shayla to prepare to catch the ball. 
  • Try hitting a balloon back and forth instead of a ball. 

In the Explore section of this lesson you will have an opportunity to think about and respond to additional scenarios like the one above. The Kids Included Together (KIT) program, Building Blocks, and Kara’s Kit can be a valuable resources from the Council for Exceptional Children Division for Early Childhood for ideas on practical, real-world ways to help children succeed in their environments.


What does outdoor physical activity look like in preschool? What can you do to support preschool children’s physical development outdoors? There are many answers to these questions. Take a look at these videos to learn more and to see examples.

Outdoor Environments and Experiences

Watch this video to learn about the significance of outdoor physical activity.


Try some of these ideas when engaging children in outdoor physical activities. Remember, the outdoors can provide numerous opportunities to gather information about a child’s development through observation on their movements during play.

  • Provide a variety of fun activities, such as riding tricycles, playing tag, scavenger hunt games, balancing games, changing direction games, obstacle course, follow the leader, dancing, freeze tag, or parachute games. 
  • Encourage children to work together to create their own games and activities.
  • Include sensory experiences for children and consider bringing some of the examples that were shared in Lesson Three (Supporting Physical Development: Indoor Environments and Experiences) outside your classroom. Encourage children to use their senses outside by exploring the natural world around them; all it’s different colors, textures, shapes, sizes, and smells.
  • Model enjoyment for physical activity outdoors by joining with children in play, running, dancing, games, and other activities.

Having Fun Outdoors!

Watch teachers be active participants in fun outdoor activities.


In the Learn section of this lesson you were introduced to a scenario about Shayla, a child with cerebral palsy, who has joined your classroom. Read and respond to the Adapting Program Activities below. Use your knowledge from this lesson to propose adaptations and solutions to each scenario. Share your responses with your trainer, coach, or administrator to learn more about ways to promote all children’s development.

It is important to offer learning experiences and activities that are appropriate, engaging and supportive of children’s learning and development across various developmental domains including cognitive, social-emotional, physical, language and literacy, and creative development. Staff working toward their CDA credential should use the CDA Gross Motor Activity Plan handout to develop an outdoor gross motor learning experience from your curriculum (or a new activity you plan on implementing).


Learn more about fun ways you can engage children in physical activity outdoors. The Take It Outside handout from Head Start Body Start provides ideas for outdoor experiences.


Changes to instruction provided to a child based on his or her needs
Cerebral palsy:
A group of non-progressive disorders that affect a person’s ability to move and maintain balance and posture. Cerebral palsy is the most common motor disability in childhood, and the CDC estimates that 1 in 303 children in the U.S. have cerebral palsy


True or False? Preschool children should be engaged in vigorous physical activity for 60 to 90 minutes per day.
A child in your preschool classroom has developmental delays. What can you do to support her physical development outdoors?
You have noticed that a few of your preschool children do not seem to be engaged with the outdoor play equipment. What can you do to make the outdoor environment more appealing?
References & Resources

American Academy of Pediatrics, American Public Health Association, National Resource Center for Health and Safety in Child Care and Early Education. (2019). Caring for Our Children: National health and safety performance standards; Guidelines for early care and education programs. (4th ed.). Elk Grove Village, IL: American Academy of Pediatrics; Washington, DC: American Public Health Association. Retrieved from

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (2013). Cerebral Palsy. Retrieved from

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (2013). Facts about Cerebral Palsy. Retrieved from

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (n.d.). Go Out and Play! Kit: A resource to help early educators monitor development through play. Retrieved from

Dodge, D. T., Colker, L. J., & Heroman, C. (2002). The Creative Curriculum for Preschool (4th ed.). Washington, DC: Teaching Strategies.

Head Start Center for Inclusion. Retrieved from

Head Start National Center on Quality Teaching and Learning. (2013). Adaptations for Individual Children: Adaptations for Children with Disabilities.

Lynch, S. & Simpson, C. (2004). Sensory processing: Meeting individual needs using the seven senses. Young Exceptional Children, 7(4): 2-9.

The National Association for Sport and Physical Education. (2020). Active Start: A statement of physical activity guidelines for children from birth to age 5. (3rd ed.). Retrieved from

Trawick-Smith, J. (2014). Early Childhood Development: A Multicultural Perspective. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson Education.

Turnbull, R., Turnbull, A., Shank, M., & Smith, S.J. (2004). Exceptional Lives: Special Education in Today’s Schools. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson Education.