Jan White, consultant in outdoor play in the early years, looks at implications of the EYFS for the development of outdoor environments for young children

‘A secure, safe and happy childhood is important in its own right, and it provides the foundation for children to make the most of their abilities and talents as they grow up.’
(Statutory Framework for the EYFS, 2007)

When we take time to reflect, many adults become aware of how much the outdoor play that we experienced when we were young was a major influence on both our happiness as a child and how we have been able to make the most of our lives since.

When given the choice, the outdoors is where most children want to be and play outdoors is what they most want. In surveys with young children, particularly those carried out to inform the development of the Early Years Foundation Stage (EYFS) framework, being outdoors always comes out at the top of their priorities and favourite things in nursery.

Parents too value the outdoors highly; they are aware that nursery provision gives their child access to opportunities outdoors that they do not otherwise experience. For some children in every setting – often boys – access to high-quality outdoor environments makes all the difference to how positive and successful their early years experiences are.

The overarching aim of the EYFS is to help children achieve the five Every Child Matters outcomes of staying safe, being healthy, enjoying and achieving, making a positive contribution and achieving economic wellbeing. Playing outdoors has a highly significant role to play in each and every one of these major and complex aspirations. The Statutory Framework for the EYFS now makes it clear that the outdoor environment is as valued and important for young children’s wellbeing and development as the indoor environment.

Rather than being regarded as just one of the ‘areas of interest’ in a setting (alongside the messy play area, the book corner and so on), the outdoor environment has to be considered as equivalent to half of the early years learning environment, providing a full range of relevant educational experiences.

‘Young children should be outdoors as much as indoors and need a well-designed, well-organised integrated indoor-outdoor environment, preferably with indoors and outdoors available simultaneously’
(The Shared Vision & Values for Outdoor Play in the Early Years, 2004)

What makes the outdoors special?
The outdoors offers a perfect companion to provision indoors – it is complementary environment that significantly enhances and extends what we are able to give children inside. In thinking about outdoor provision, the central idea that we must hold in our minds is that the outdoors is different to indoors: these differences are what make it special and important. We need to be clear about how the outdoors differs from the indoors, why children benefit from being outside and how the outdoors responds so well to the ways in which young children learn. This thinking then gives us the key for what to provide and how to plan for the outdoor half of our environment. The special nature of the outdoors fits the ways young children want to be, behave, learn and develop in so many ways. Perhaps this is why children love to be outside so much! It certainly gives a strong rationale and justification for developing rich outdoor provision and building in as much access to it as possible.

Requirements of the EYFS framework
‘Ensure that children have opportunities to be outside on a daily basis all year round.’
(Principles into Practice: 3.3 The Learning Environment)

Under the Childcare Act 2006, from September 2008 all early years providers will have a legal responsibility to ensure that their provision meets welfare, learning and development requirements that include:

  • outdoor and indoor premises and equipment that are organised in a way that meets the needs of children
  • adequate space to give scope for free movement and well-spread activities (this is much easier to achieve indoors when the outdoors forms half of the overall environment)
  • an expected norm that children have access to an outdoor play area: rain does not stop outdoor play. In provision where outdoor play space cannot be provided, Ofsted inspectors will want to see that children are taken out of the premises on a daily basis
  • outdoor spaces and resources, which are safe and suitable for their purpose
  • good risk management processes, taking all reasonable steps to ensure that hazards to children are kept to a minimum. This does not mean removing appropriate experiences that have high developmental benefit; it does mean finding ways for children to engage in them without undue risk of harm
  • all practitioners having a clear understanding of their roles and responsibilities: this will include being clear, positive and confident about their roles in supporting good-quality play outdoors
  • planning and organisational systems that ensure every child receives an enjoyable and challenging learning and development experience, tailored to meet individual needs and delivered through a balance of adult-led and freely chosen or child-initiated indoor and outdoor play activities.

Getting ready for the EYFS
Beginning to implement an improved curriculum framework that sees young children having daily access to an outdoor learning environment cannot be done quickly or lightly if we are to actually offer rich, stimulating, challenging and safe contexts and experiences which make the most of what the outdoors has to offer. It is important to adopt an ongoing developmental approach over a considerable timescale, accompanied by rigorous reflection, evaluation and lots of positive thinking!

Quality outdoor provision should to be approached with a clear, big-picture vision of where you want to get to, combined with a manageable ‘bite-at-a-time’ attack strategy. Spend plenty of time working out just what it is that you want your children to be able to do and experience through your outdoor provision, then start with an immediate, small development. Success breeds motivation: begin with a small, highly achievable step in the right direction, and the desire and ability to take bigger steps will follow.

Providers will need to give a great deal of thought to this question ‘How can our outdoor space become an ‘enabling environment’ that has the potential to support each child to be a unique, competent learner and to make progress at their own pace in a challenging and enjoyable way?’

Such an environment must be sufficiently varied, rich, stretching and emotionally secure to help children to:

  • develop a positive sense of themselves and others, getting to know themselves and what they can do and building a positive disposition to learn
  • develop the confidence to use their communication, language and emerging literary skills for a range of situations and purposes
  • explore, enjoy, learn, practise and talk about mathematical ideas in a broad range of contexts
  • work at making sense of the world, encountering and exploring creatures, people, plants, tools and materials in natural and real-life situations
  • be active and interactive, developing sensory integration, movement, coordination, control and manipulation
  • nurture their creative curiosity, exploration and play, using the full range of experiences to explore and share creative thoughts, ideas and feelings.

Section 4.4 of the EYFS Principles into Practice cards covering the ‘areas of learning and development’ provides many prompts for creating enabling environments, providing positive relationships and supporting learning and development. These relate to outdoor provision and practice as much as indoors: read and digest all the advice with both halves of your learning environment in mind.

Challenges to be addressed
The following points highlight what leaders of early years settings need to think about and tackle in order to create the enabling environment which the outdoors has so much potential to provide:

  • Difficulties of the building and lack of direct access to the outdoor area must be overcome to enable easy, daily access for lengthy periods. A good transition zone between inside and outside makes a huge difference and should be a focus of attention.
  • A small space with limited facilities feels uninspiring for adults. We need to identify and realise the surprising potential of such spaces, and to keep the use of these areas as flexible as possible.
  • Adequate storage is a must, as is excellent organisation of equipment. This continuous provision approach ensures that resources are used and children make their own selections and take a lead on their play.
  • The ‘playtime’ mentality must be lost. Rigid timetabling and short time-slots mean children do not have long enough periods of time to become deeply involved, deepen their use of materials, and for rich and satisfying learning to take place. Moving towards free-flow choice and movement between each half of the learning environment, throughout the day and year, should be the goal, but might take time to implement.
  • Where spaces are shared and difficulties of mixing age groups are perceived, a rethink of practice and attitude may be needed. Free-flow rather than timetabled outdoor play means fewer children will be out from each group at any one time, and both older and younger children benefit greatly from having time together.
  • Limited funds must not prevent progress. The best resources are open-ended, versatile and, in general, cost little. Play value can be quickly raised through putting positive thinking and energy into gathering the right kind of resources. Long-term whole-setting development plans must prioritise outdoor provision and allocate funds accordingly, as they become available.
  • Work in every way possible to engage parents in their child’s activity and learning through their play outdoors: parents need to see and understand outdoor play to alleviate possible concerns arising from cultural differences and fear of risk and harm.
  • Practitioner attitudes, understanding and commitment, comfort, confidence and competence are all crucial aspects of successful outdoor provision. Practitioners having a good understanding of their role outside contributes significantly to sharing children’s pleasure in being outside. Physical comfort, such as clothing and seating, also makes a difference.
  • Our ‘difficult’ climate actually provides a wonderfully rich and dynamic environment for exploration, play and discussion. Good starting points are to provide suitable clothing for all and to generate the positive kind of thinking that sees rain as a resource rather than a hindrance!

A deeper understanding of safety, challenge and risk must be developed. It is vital that adults help children gain a healthy approach to physical, mental and emotional risk and to learn how to keep themselves safe: the outdoors has much to offer here. Risk management must be seen by practitioners as a highly useful tool for providing the safe framework that enables appropriately rich, challenging and stretching experiences for all children.

Further reading

  • The Early Years Foundation Stage (2007)
  • The Shared Vision & Values for Outdoor Play in the Early Years, Vision & Values Partnership 2004
  • Playing and Learning Outdoors: Making Provision for High Quality Experiences in the Outdoor Environment by Jan White, published by Routledge 2008