Jan White provides a range of practical ideas for creating enabling outdoor environments that support young children’s health, wellbeing, development and learning

‘A rich and varied environment supports children’s learning and development. It gives them the confidence to explore and learn in secure and safe, yet challenging, indoor and outdoor spaces’
(Statutory Framework for the EYFS commitment 3.3)

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When we analyse what is it that motivates young children’s explorations and activities, especially outdoors in the real and natural environment, we find that they are asking some big questions about the world: how does the world work; what and who is in it; who am I; how do I fit in and belong; what do these things do; what can I do with them? The following six major ingredients make up a full menu of rich and satisfying outdoor provision for young children hungry to find out about and understand their physical and human world.

1. Natural materials
Natural materials, including sand and soil, are some of the best resources you can provide for outdoor play. They are easily found or inexpensive to buy, easy to store and present in appealing ways and, most importantly, have excellent play value. They stimulate and support a wide range of play and generate learning across the whole curriculum in a motivational and meaningful way. A good supply of multi-sensory natural materials can:

  • respond to the child’s insatiable curiosity to explore the ‘stuff of the world’
  • provide therapeutic play that is emotionally satisfying
  • develop intellectual skills: observing detail, sorting, classifying and pattern-making; using representational and symbolic thinking
  • provide ways of working with interests and schemas
  • develop fine-manipulative and gross-motor physical skills
  • support imagination and creativity
  • extend language through playful interaction and hearing adults describe what is happening.

What to do next week
Collect a range of gravel, pebbles and cobbles (from garden centres), shells, sticks, large seeds (conkers, acorns etc) and pine cones. Load them into the drawers of a mobile A3 paper trolley and/or provide lots of small containers for sorting, filling and carrying. Encourage the children to collect leaves, flowers (such as dandelions, daisies and buttercups), twigs and herbs from around the outdoor space, or to bring them in from home. Observe the many ways children use these materials and add to the collection according to what you understand is driving their interests.

2. Experiencing the living world
Young children exhibit a clear affinity with things from the living world. A key element of the experience we provide has to be close, personal contact with nature: plenty of time every day for children to have real and direct, small-scale experiences of the living world around them. Just as warm human relationships build an emotionally strong core, a connection with nature provides a sense of belonging that contributes to emotional resilience.

Exploring, growing and nurturing plants and wildlife offers children opportunities for:

  • learning through doing and a wide range of real experiences with strong emotional contexts
  • intimate contact with the natural world
  • physical activity and sensory development   
  • working together, talking and sharing discoveries
  • taking responsibility for the wellbeing of living things
  • developing an interest in tasting and eating healthy food
  • building foundations for attitudes and interests that can last through life.

What to do next week
Grow grass to create a small-world playscape. Find a large, low-level container, such as an old car tyre (cleaned and checked). Ask the children to help line the tyre with weed-control fabric, put in a drainage layer of gravel and fill the rest of the space with loam topsoil. Sprinkle grass seeds lightly over the surface and sieve a fine layer of soil over them. Watch with pleasure and wonder as the seeds germinate and grow, giving children the opportunity to take responsibility for monitoring and watering.

3. Exploring water outdoors
Water is a magical, intriguing and soothing substance to which young children are strongly drawn. Children can move water from one place to another or see how it can make objects move. They can explore how water changes surfaces and substances, being wonderfully inventive and imaginative with their ideas and theories. With suitable clothing, children can play with water throughout the year, interacting with it using their whole body and all their senses. Investigating and exploring water during or after rain is even more multi-sensory and further supports the young child in his or her quest to make sense of the world around.

What to do next week
The simplest way to offer water play outdoors is to provide children with brushes and a bucket of water. Collect brushes of all sizes and dimensions from very fine ones to huge wallpaper brushes that need two hands. Offer rollers and emulsion paint trays, sponges and other interesting applicators. Give permission to ‘paint’ anywhere and everything outdoors and, over time, provide a wider range of utensils with which to work. Provide a sturdy, two-step ladder so that children can reach high up; an all-in-one waterproof ‘decorator’s suit’ would add further to the role-play possibilities.

4. Movement and physical play
Young children love to move and have great motivation to join in with others. This drive for movement is perhaps so strong because of its fundamental influence on all other aspects of a child’s life.

  • Movement makes the brain feel energised, and moving well brings the enjoyment of being active.
  • Enjoying the feeling of their body and what it can do builds a child’s self-image and self-confidence.
  • Activity helps the body and brain develop muscles, bones, tendons and sensory pathways.
  • Movement and physical competences enable the child to join in with the activities their friends enjoy doing and builds relationships: simply running together helps friendships form.
  • Young children need to move in order to learn: the development of the brain and the body are completely intertwined, and concrete experiences felt with the whole body give fuller meaning and lasting memories.

What to do next week
Offer a large collection of colourful long and short ropes. Children are likely to use lots of imaginative and creative ideas together with movement and physical play, and come up with uses you might not think of yourself. Teach children about the hazards of using ropes and how to keep themselves and others safe, and ensure their safe use by being involved or observing nearby. Record all the ideas to share with parents, making the learning visible to them.

5. Imaginative and creative play outdoors
Creative and expressive play covers a wide range of opportunities and can be part of most experiences. It includes mark-making, art, drawing, design, construction, problem-solving, music, dance, performance, make-believe play, storytelling and books.

Children can engage with creative play opportunities outdoors in ways not really possible indoors.

For example:

  • many children find the outdoors a more liberating, flexible and innovative play environment
  • the space allows movement and large-scale working: in 3D, with large materials and in groups
  • the possibility to be active, noisy, multi-sensory and messy responds to the way many boys like to play
  • children’s natural exuberance when playing musical instruments, singing or dancing is accommodated 
  • there are very many ‘sparks’ for creativity from the natural world, real experiences and the surrounding locality
  • many role-play scenarios work better outside, where they have greater authenticity and meaning
  • literary and numeracy activities should take place outside, associated with active and imaginative play, so that children do not come to see numbers and writing as indoor ‘work’ tasks.

What to do next week
Offer a huge canvas for innovative, liberated painting by pegging an old cotton sheet or shower curtain to the fence or by draping a big piece of thick plastic sheeting over a climbing frame. Make up some thin and thicker paint in bottles ready for squirting, spraying or dripping. Successively add non-spill paint pots, spray bottles, squirting bottles, and a wide range of brushes, sponges and other household utensils to use as paint applicators. A drain un-blocker makes for an interesting painting tool! Children can also use the tarmac as their canvas: a squirt of washing-up liquid in the paint helps the rain or a hose to wash it away at the end.

6. Construction and den play outdoors
Construction outdoors is especially successful because it is full of ‘moving and doing’. Big resources invite children to work communally and the high levels of activity and action engages boys in social, cooperative and dramatic play. Den-building is a special kind of construction that is especially important in outdoor provision. Young children have a great need for small, nurturing spaces which can be constructed on grass, sand and tarmac as well as among bushes. Dens have a special appeal and generate particular ways of playing, especially when they offer a feeling of being out of sight. Outdoor spaces often lack softness and comfort, so this is a really effective way to add emotional security and for quieter children to feel able to play.

What to do next week
Gather together good materials for constructing dens, such as bread and milk crates, cardboard boxes, long thick ropes, tarpaulins, blankets and net curtains, and things to join them with, such as pegs, masking and carpet tape, string and scissors (best organised in a mobile tool box). Provide resources for playing in the den, or give children permission to bring items out from indoors as they decide they need them. Children need extensive amounts of time for this type of play: short sessions outdoors will not yield good-quality construction and play. Build on children’s observed interests: this den play could develop in lots of possible directions.