Promoting children’s learning and development through their environment and play

As part of our Quality in Practice series, Dr Helen Little explores outdoor play and learning within Standard 3.2.

Quality Area (QA) 3 of the National Quality Standards (NQS) focuses on the physical environment. The environment has long been referred to as the ‘third teacher’ but what does this mean for the provision of inclusive, play-based outdoor learning experiences that promote exploration and support children’s competence (Standard 3.2).

The Early Years Learning Framework (DEEWR, 2009) describes outdoor learning spaces as environments that “invite open-ended interactions, spontaneity, risk-taking, exploration, discovery and connection with nature. They foster an appreciation of the natural environment, develop environmental awareness and provide a platform for ongoing environmental education” (p. 16).

The unique characteristics and stimuli of the outdoor environment provide different play opportunities that cannot be replicated indoors. In outdoor settings, children move more, sit less and play longer. They often have more space and freedom for large and loud movement play, opportunities to gain mastery over a wide range of gross and fine motor skills, and room for independence, agency and socialising. Outdoor environments provide an authentic context for children to learn about the world and their place within it. Environments that include natural elements, in particular, provide endless opportunities to learn about the world in a meaningful way. The outdoor environment is constantly changing in response to the weather, seasons, time of day and the interaction between humans and the environment.

Thinking about outdoor play provision

Engaging outdoor learning spaces offer stimulating resources and rich play-based learning opportunities that are relevant to all children’s interests, capabilities, cultures and communities, and support children to explore and take risks. In thinking about resources that support play-based learning (Element 3.2.2) in the outdoor environment, some underlying principles can be considered:

  • Access to a range of experiences that provide diversity for the children using the space and balance of opportunity (e.g. quiet spaces where children can retreat from more active and crowded areas; places for social play, dramatic play, active play, construction etc).
  • Ecology and indigenous plantings – How does the play space itself and the larger landscape that surrounds the centre reflect and interact with each other?
  • Linkage/connectivity (visual and physical) – between the indoors and outdoors and between areas within the outdoor environment (a hierarchy of different pathways can orchestrate movement in a play space and helps children understand and use the space in different ways); between the centre and surrounding neighbourhood (e.g. can children see what’s going on beyond the fence?)
  • Space – overall space as well as variable sized spaces to accommodate different numbers of children and different uses.
  • Children’s cultural references – does the outdoor environment reflect the diversity of the children and community?

The following diagram summarises some of the variables to consider in the provision of rich outdoor learning spaces:

Adapted from McConaghy (2008)

There is a growing body of research evidence that children in early childhood settings do not meet the daily recommend levels of physical activity, so the first two design elements in the diagram, active areas and open spaces, are very important. Moveable equipment is a common feature of the outdoor environment and is preferable to fixed equipment as it generally provides less flexibility and cannot be adapted to respond to children’s changing capabilities and interests thus limiting the possibilities. Settings can also consider how the natural characteristics or elements within the physical environment support active play – are there rocks to scramble over, trees to climb, logs to balance on and so on. Open space provides the room for more active games and flexible use of the space whether it be for running or ball games or rough and tumble play or dramatic play or block building. Is the space flat or are there areas where the ground is sloping to allow children to experience the differences and how this influences their balance and movement patterns.

Creative and explorative elements are also an important, for example, sandpits, watercourses, rock formations, textured planting and varied ground surfaces (e.g. grass; pebbles; bark). These items invite exploration and creativity and provide a supply of natural loose parts for children to use in their play – encouraging imagination and symbolic play. Social spaces such as dens/cubbies, platforms, and amphitheatres not only provides spaces for children and adults to gather but also spaces for dramatic play.

The inclusion of special features can provide further opportunities for play-based learning. These might include aesthetic and artistic elements such as mosaic designs created with pebbles of tiles in pathways or decorative water containers such as bird baths to attract animal life. It could also include features such as animal enclosures, or cultural references such as a yarning circle, for example.

Finally, the space also needs to consider the adults in the environment not just the children. It needs to be an environment that is comfortable for adults as well as being easy to supervise and easy to set up experiences for children.

Most importantly, overall there needs to be access to a range of experiences that provide diversity for the children using the space. Inclusive environments (Element 3.2.1) value all people and value learning. They allow flexible use to enable children to adapt it in response to their changing interests and capabilities. Children will become more deeply involved when they have something that is new and unusual for them to explore and the dynamic characteristics of natural outdoor environments provide this opportunity. One way of achieving this is through the provision of stimulating resources, such as loose parts (both recycled objects as well as natural materials collected from the environment), which are accessible and open-ended so they can be used, moved and combined in a variety of ways (Element 3.2.2). Importantly, educators should ensure that children have time and freedom to become deeply involved in activities.

In thinking about outdoor environments that support engagement by all children, reflecting on the following aspects provides a rich source information about the learning potential of the environment as well as children’s interests and capacities:

  • Resource allocation and useuse and movement of resources; the type and function of resources; what choice and ownership children have of these.
  • Time spent outside (and time spent engaging with nature) – how is it structured and what is the relative duration between inside, outside and beyond the centre? How are these experiences connected to enhance children’s learning? How do they influence children’s sustained engagement in the environment?
  • Physical access to natural spaces – movement to, from and within the environment; the subdivision of spaces and connection in learning across multiple spaces.
  • Adult role and relationship – the perception of the adult role in the outdoor environment greatly influences the learning opportunities children experience. The cultural style of interactions between educators and children and pedagogical practices are an important part of supporting children’s play, exploration and active learning. Educators need to find a balance between child-initiated/child-led, child-initiated/adult-led, adult-initiated/child-led, and adult-initiated/adult-led experiences that are appropriate to the context and learning goals/objectives.

Finally, outdoor environments provide a context for promoting environmental responsibility (Element 3.2.3). Teaching outdoors in a natural environment promotes an appreciation and lifelong connectedness to the environment. A study by Cheng and Monroe (2012) measuring children’s enjoyment of nature, empathy for creatures, sense of oneness, and sense of responsibility, revealed that children’s connection to nature, previous experiences in nature, perceived family (and/or educator) values towards nature, and perceived self–efficacy, positively influenced their interest in performing environmentally friendly behaviours.

When children are provided with an opportunity to develop a sense of wonder then rapid advancements can be made in developing ecological understanding, especially if nurtured by an attentive adult who notices what arouses children’s curiosity, facilitates and listens to the child’s questions and observations about the world around them, to identify learning that is intrinsically motivated. Children need to care enough to create a positive relationship with the earth and others. Children need to build a sense of belonging in the environment for this to occur. Children’s sense of belonging and eco-literacy is promoted through opportunities to:

  • Experience unstructured time outdoors – time “to be” and to contemplate, in a natural setting. There is also well-documented evidence that green spaces have positive effects on the physical and mental health of children and adults alike, including a reduction in stress, anxiety and depressive symptoms (Dyment, Bell & Green, 2017).
  • Develop a sense of wonder about the natural world through exploration and discovery and observing changes in an environment over time
  • Develop scientific processes of investigation and experimentation.
  • Develop many varied learning experiences integrating many knowledge areas. Through engagement with the natural environment and participation in real life activities, children begin to understand scientific phenomena and concepts linked a range of science disciplines. Children develop basic numeracy skills and expand their vocabulary as they encounter new objects and are exposed to rich descriptive language.
  • Develop collaborative, investigative and critical thinking skills, and use tools and begin to develop practical skills in caring for the environment.

Expanding outdoor play provision beyond the setting

For those with limited outdoor space, going on local excursions or participating in and contributing to community events can help children connect with the community and engage with natural environments. In recent years, there has been growing interest in ‘bush kinder’ programs modelled on the outdoor preschools and forest schools from Scandinavia and the UK. Whilst these provide opportunities for children to spend sustained periods in nature, such programs or ready access to nature environments are not always possible. This does not mean that community spaces cannot be used to expand opportunities for learning outdoors. Utilising local community playgrounds and green spaces, no matter how small, may provide opportunities to expand children’s experiences beyond those that can be provided at the centre / school.

Another way of involving children in the community is through community gardens, which many local councils have set up in public spaces. Engaging in such gardening projects can support children’s holistic development and provide opportunities for being physically active as well as building relationships with the community. Children can also learn new skills, have fun, play and develop self-confidence by tending to plants and growing their own food.

References and Further Reading

Casey, T. (2007). Environments for outdoor play: A practical guide to making space for children. London: Sage.

Cheng, J. & Monroe, M. (2012). Connection to nature: Children’s affective attitude toward nature. Environment and Behaviour, 44(1), 31-49. DOI: 10.1177/0013916510385082

Department of Education, Employment, and Workplace Relations [DEEWR] (2009) Belonging, being and becoming: The Early Years Learning Framework for Australia. Canberra: DEEWR.

Dyment, J., Bell, A., & Green, M. (2017). Green outdoor environments: Settings for promoting children’s health and wellbeing. In H. Little, S. Elliott, & S. Wyver (Eds.), Outdoor learning environments: Spaces for exploration, discovery and risk-taking in the early years (pp. 38–58). Melbourne: Taylor & Francis.

Little, H., Elliott, S., & Wyver, S. (2017). Outdoor learning environments: Spaces for exploration, discovery and risk-taking in the early years (pp. 38–58). Melbourne: Taylor & Francis.

McConaghy, R. (2008). Designing natural playspaces: Principles. In S. Elliott (Ed.), The outdoor playspace naturally for children birth to five years. Sydney: Pademelon Press.

Warden, C. (2015). Learning with nature: Embedding outdoor practice. London: Sage.

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