Information: outdoor play
Information on the theory and practice of outdoor play – from case studies to policies, examples of forms, documents & handouts, research and articles, and much more to support your theoretical explorations into the outdoors.
With your help the information section can grow – can you recommend sample policies, signpost articles or videos, share documents or resources? Please contribute so we can build the knowledge and good practice of all people working with groups outdoors. Contact us via email@example.com
Reports, articles, research etc are, as much as possible, arranged in chronological order, most recent at the top.
At Muddy Faces we feel it is vitally important to consider a learner-led approach when making activities available to your groups.
We asked Jan White, internationally-recognised consultant and speaker for outdoor provision in the early years, to explain.
Why is child-led play important?
“Research in children’s education makes it clear that learning that is satisfying, rewarding and effective occurs when the child is deeply engaged and involved – and that this happens when the learner is strongly motivated by the experience, because it is relevant and matters to them at that moment.
Children’s enormous curiosity and drive to explore, discover and come to know their world is innate and natural – it has been coded into us biologically through evolution so that we can survive and thrive in a continually changing world. This means that children are driven intuitively to do what is needed to develop well, and to interact and experiment with the things, stuff and people that are in their world.
Children therefore have a strong need to interact with and come to make sense of what is in the world, how the world works and how they fit into it, and are especially hard-wired to be interested in natural processes and how nature works. By trusting each child’s own agenda – what they want to do, feel or be in this particular moment – we support them to find out about what they are naturally drawn to, investigate what they are really interested in, and follow this line of enquiry to their satisfaction.
Evolution has also crafted children to learn through playing with their world. In playful interactions with no set outcome, things, people and forces can be messed about with, moved, modified, recombined and fully explored. The questioning, creativity, critical thinking and problem solving that this child-driven approach to finding out develops so well, have been identified as vital dispositions and skill sets for the economy and employment in the 21st century.
Trusting child-driven, play-filled activity enables every child to be the highly-motivated self-directed learner that they are designed to be.
Planning for possibilities and the place of ‘activities’
Enabling child-initiated and child-led play requires a rich and open environment, filled with possibilities that are appropriate to the children’s level of development and range of likely interests, and this comes from both knowing about children in general and knowing each individual child well.
Within such an environment, adult-initiated activities are likely to be of interest when they match what a child is currently interested in and driven to learn more about. Successful introduction of activities therefore needs alert adults who are attuned to this child and tuned into what is currently motivating them, so that a relevant activity can be offered.
In this context, specific activities can be used in two effective ways: firstly to respond to and provide further opportunity for the child to investigate and play with their demonstrated interest(s); and secondly to ‘seed’ new ideas – to offer provocations that give the child wider experiences, spark new thoughts and present additional ways to follow their interest. Children are usually drawn by what others show energy for, and such interest can be contagious, so that one child’s involvement draws and inspires others.
Activities that are flexible and open to being used in several ways are more playful and interesting, and therefore have much more value for children’s learning. A combination of simplicity with versatility (which nature is so good at) allows the child to take the activity in multiple directions, playing with it beyond the obvious or expected. However, flexibility in the supporting adult is also required – enjoying surprise and finding pleasure in what children do with the ideas we offer!
Plenty of non-directed time is also critical to success. Time-limited activities can suffer from a focus on product over process – the glue may well be far more interesting than the item being made! So, factor in lots of uninterrupted time, be prepared for a child to take the activity in entirely new directions, and leave the possibility for children to return to it at a later time to carry on investigating and experimenting. If the opportunity fits with their interests, they will probably come back to it when the time is right for them.”
White, J. (2014), Playing and Learning Outdoors: making provision for high quality experiences in the outdoor environment with children 3-7 (Routledge)
Woods, A. (Ed.) (2013), Child Initiated Play and Learning: planning for possibilities in the early years (David Fulton)
About Jan White
Working across the UK and internationally, Jan is a leading thinker and writer on outdoor play, advocate for high quality outdoor provision for services for children from birth to seven and founder/strategic director of Early Childhood Outdoors, the National Centre for Play, Learning and Wellbeing Outdoors. With over thirty years’ experience in education, including working with Learning Through Landscapes and Early Excellence to develop national support for early years’ outdoor provision, and as an Associate Lecturer at Sheffield Hallam and Birmingham City Universities (CREC), she has developed a deep commitment to the consistently powerful effect of the outdoors on young children. She is currently an Associate with Early Education, convenor of the Landscapes for Early Childhood national network, and provides training courses, conference keynotes and consultancy for a wide range of early years settings. With a childhood love of rocks and soil, leading to a degree in Soil Science, a masters in Ecology and post-graduate teaching certificate in Science and Outdoor Education, she realises that she has always been, at heart, a committed mudologist!
Jan is award-winning author of Playing and Learning Outdoors: making provision for high quality experiences in the outdoor environment with children 3-7 (Routledge 2014), Making a Mud Kitchen (Muddy Faces 2012) and Every Child a Mover (Early Education 2016), editor of Outdoor Provision in the Early Years (Sage 2011), and collaborated with Siren Films to make the award-winning training DVDs Babies Outdoors, Toddlers Outdoors and Two Year-olds Outdoors (Siren Films 2011).
In 2018 Jan was made an honorary Professor of Practice by the University of Wales Trinity St David (UWTSD). Read an interview with her about it here.
Jan’s website is janwhitenaturalplay.wordpress.com
The researchers of the 2020 Australian study into the importance of nature play discuss their work and its findings. Newswise (Aus), 14 February 2020.
Inspired by Richard Louv’s work on Nature Deficit Disorder, Dr Zarr is the founder and medical director of Park Rx America, a nonprofit that encourages doctors to prescribe parks, based on the expanding scientific literature that shows that spending time outdoors is good for physical and mental health. New York Times (US), 16 July 2018.
A charity is ‘calling for a new drive to encourage parents to get their children playing outdoors. Dr Catherine Calderwood, Scotland’s chief medical officer, said the benefits of outdoor learning, exercise and play were well documented….’ The Herald, 24 February 2018.
“In his book “Last Child in the Woods,” Richard Louv wrote about the criminalization of nature play. He wrote about a civic association that would spend much of their time & resources hunting through the forests in an effort to try to catch children in the act of building a treehouse. In the eyes of the association, the kids had to be stopped.” This article is written by one of those kids, now grown up. Children & Nature Network, 22 February 2018.
“Children must engage in active play for optimal brain function… A new study shows the brain-body connection is stronger than many people realized.” Guardian Liberty Voice, 30 September 2014.
Webpage looking at nature play, why it is important, the challenges to doing it (and to not doing it) (to people and the environment) and how to bring it back. On Green Hearts (US) – an excellent resource, no longer active, but left online for its useful content. Also:
A free-to-download pdf: ‘In 20 concise pages you can learn about what makes great nature play, why it is important, and how you can restore it to your children’s daily lives.’ Both c2014.
Useful & referenced article looking at the concept of comparative risk, the importance of risk, and how nature play can play a part. Ecology (US), 17 July 2012
“This book explores the magic of spontaneous play self-organized by children … Children express joy and independence in outdoor play. The author takes us along to play venues outdoors, showing us how cliffs, trees and groves are cherished sites of play.” Merete Lund Fasting, Norway. Published December 2019. Free pdf download.
Book recommendations from Annie Woods
Annie Woods, editor of Child-Initiated Play and Learning, was an early years lecturer at Nottingham Trent University with a particular interest in outdoor play environments and children’s fascination with natural elements.
Annie let us know about the work her team has done to collate observational research and edited chapters detailing well being and involvement, inclusive outdoor spaces and effective learning opportunities. Click here to read Annie’s recommendations.
Get the very best from outdoor playing and learning for children from ages three to five years. Develop rich and stimulating outdoor play provision in Early Years settings. Achievable advice and support, based on approaches which are appropriate and effective for young children’s all-round well-being and development. 2013. Available from Muddy Faces.
The complete guide to creating effective outdoor environments for young children’s learning. Includes: how to manage and set up the outdoor area; what children gain from being outside; how to allow children to take managed risks; research supporting the outdoor approach, plus a multitude of ideas and activities for working outdoors in the early years. 2010. Available from Muddy Faces.
Full of good practice case studies, with lots of ideas for activities, equipment and resources, this is a comprehensive guide to planning for learning outside throughout the year, focusing on outdoor play with three to five-year-olds. 2003. Available from Muddy Faces.
15 case studies looking at wellbeing benefits of woodland activities, with a range of activities, in various outdoor settings, with children, young people and adults with learning difficulties.
Muddy Faces case studies
The work carried out at different settings, on a day-to-day basis, can be fascinating. Here are some examples of mud play, mud kitchens and Mud Day events in action.
For more mud stuff, including our free mud book, mud articles & resources visit our Mud page.
“Playgrounds that mimic the natural environment have physical and mental benefits for preschool children, according to a study … coauthored by professors at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville” (US). 9 July 2019.
‘How can we bring outdoor learning to our children in the limited space that we have?’ Suggestions for reaping the benefits of outdoor learning, whatever your setting. That Nursery Life, 24 September 2018.
Starting with a definition, its effects, and how schools can help children with SPD, the benefits of the outdoors on this group is followed by a list including mud kitchens, water & sand play, and a magnifying glass. Pentagon, 26 June 2018.
The Influence of Design on Play Behavior in London vs New York, San Francisco, and Los Angeles. A comparison of 16 playgrounds in London with US provision to understand the influences of the design of playgrounds on play behaviours and physical activity levels in children and teens. Findings address 1. Design for all ages 2. Play everywhere 3. Think outside the catalogue 4. Play grounds are for play 5. Risk is a good thing. Studio Ludo (US), December 2017.
‘An inclusive playground accommodates everyone & challenges them at their own developmental level. This guide was developed … as an inspirational & educational resource to help create great outdoor play environments for everyone. It offers a set of strategies & solutions to the challenges that face communities in their journey to inclusive play.’ Playworld, 2015 (US), on Accessible Playground.
Ideas for Cost Effective Solutions. Info sheet which ‘provides examples of how creative problem solving and resourcefulness can provide cost effective ways to enrich early childhood outdoor spaces.’ Some lovely examples of outdoor spaces enhanced with natural materials. From the Natural Learning Initiative (US), January 2012 (pdf).
See also: Adding Value to Early Childhood Outdoor Play and Learning Environments: The Top Ten Activity Settings (pdf).
Encouraging Creative Play and Learning in Natural Environments. ‘How to set up indoor & outdoor nature play spaces as well as encouraging environmentally responsible attitudes, values & behaviour in your early childhood setting … a wealth of ideas on how to foster creative play & learning in nature-focused environments while also promoting positive connections with nature.’ 2012.
Report exploring natural playscapes and the benefits of nature play, including 5 steps for designing a nature playspace, and case studies of projects that have successfully done it. The Wild Child, 2012 (pdf).
in Nature Centers and Other Natural Areas. “… a set of principles and practices to guide our work. These are not scientifically proven, absolute, or etched in stone. Rather, they represent Green Hearts’ best judgement and analysis, based on our experience. We share them here to help (you) think through core principles and key design issues for spaces intended to recreate the wonderful, nature-based play that so many of us enjoyed during our youth.” 2009 (pdf).
Primary capital, co-design and educational transformation. ‘This handbook focuses on the use and utility of outdoor space for play and learning, and aims to support those thinking about redesigning their outdoor spaces.’ A Futurelab handbook, on NFER, January 2008.
9 case studies looking at the transformation of play spaces in schools, kindergartens and pubic parks in Berlin, Germany. Each case study focuses on a different theme: choice, risk & challenge, Nature with a capital N, play machines, sand, shade & setting, topography, variety & texture, and water.
“Here are five simple projects to start you on your way toward a multi-sensory natural playscape. They’re not difficult or complex. They just take a little bit of creativity and time. Alter them to suit your own needs and licensing requirements. Do you have any parents who could help you? Spirited staff? Don’t forget to include children in the process.” From Earthplay.
Inspiration for creating spaces which stimulate physical activity and meet children’s developmental needs to explore, create, collaborate, socialise and simply ‘be’.
Contents: Designing for play; Playground placemaking; A word about risk; Design for learning; Nature; Growing; Making it happen. From SEED.
‘A resource for early childhood educators, childcare providers, administrators, and professionals seeking the latest information to create high quality, healthy outdoor environments for young children.’ Natural Learning Initiative.
See also NTL’s research section – ‘research of children’s outdoor environments to generate new knowledge that may support evidence-based design’, and infosheets which ‘highlight specific aspects of landscape design or design programming.’
A Guide To Inclusive Playground Design
A Guide to Natural Playgrounds
How-To Accommodate Special Needs Children on the Playground
Sensory Playground Equipment
‘Inclusive play is the creation of environments for play that serve sensory, physical, cognitive, social, and emotional needs of all children in a community, regardless of ability.’ AAA State of Play (US).
‘Designed to walk you through the process of how to create a community-build playspace. From fundraising to volunteer recruitment, the Toolkit can help you take your project from start to finish with over a decade’s worth of KaBOOM! knowledge, advice, and best practices in building playspaces.’ Also:
‘Step-by-step instructions to transform the area around a playspace into an inviting place for your community’ – including instructions for building stages, benches, planters, fences, picnic tables, bins, and tons more – a great resource!
Great resource! ‘Learn to create engaging outdoor learning and play environments to improve student health and reconnect children with nature.’ Includes a complete guide to Create a Nature Play Area and Outdoor Classrooms, Labs & Habitats. From Bay Backpack.
Our most complete guide to indoor and woodland den building.
Free to download, created by Muddy Faces. An excellent (though we say so ourselves!) and extensive practical guide to indoor and woodland den building.
Contents include • what is a den? • benefits of den building & impact on development • moving the indoor outside • facilitating den building • building dens in a wild or woodland area • den building resources • building dens at your setting with limited natural resources • construction ideas – tarpaulin shelter – classic tent shape – tipi & other ideas • external links & final word.
A shortened (but still extensive) version of the full den guide, as featured in one of our wonderful Muddy Faces newsletters. Contents include • the benefits of den building: how den building is an essential part of a child’s development! • risk: the balance between exposure to risk and preventing harm • moving the indoors outside – easy den building using everyday objects • woodland dens & shelters: examples • erecting a tarpaulin shelter in woodland • dens & development.
Designed to inspire action, with strategies and ‘plays’ – simple nature connection activities – and case studies of organisations having a go. Hard to describe, this is worth taking a look at to kickstart or boost what you already do. From IUCN Commission on Education and Communication (CEC) and Canadian Parks Council (CPC), 2017 (pdf).
Nurturing Children and Strengthening Conservation through Connections to the Land
Part 1: A Primer on Nature Play and Its Importance – exploring the essential characteristics of nature play, its benefits & barriers. Part 2: Restoring Nature Play – real actions to undertake including advice on creating nature play spaces & playscapes, creating understanding amongst stakeholders, developing & planning programmes, activities & more. The appendix includes a discussion on risk. Greenhearts (US), c2015 (pdf).
Take a risk, go play outside! ‘An online tool to help parents and caregivers gain the confidence to allow their kids to engage in more outdoor play.’ With sections on – What is Risky Play? and Why is Risky Play Important? Followed by a guided journey to put yourself in your child’s, and other parents, shoes, to build an action plan for change.
Our outdoor play links page signposts you to the main national bodies, key organisations, initiatives and websites in the world of play outdoors.
Have a browse – there are tons of links to loads of interesting, important & inspiring organisations!
A toolkit ‘developed to support adults in the play, early years and education sectors to provide loose parts play within their settings.’ From Play Wales, July 2017 (based on the Loose Parts Play Toolkit, below).
Brilliant free 72-page pdf on the value of loose parts to children’s play, providing practical guidance to those who work with children and young people of all ages. By Theresa Casey & Juliet Robertson, produced by the Scottish Government in partnership with Inspiring Scotland.
Articles on loose parts
• loose parts: what does this mean? Ideas for adding and using loose parts for activities in a child care program, from Penn State Extension, 2016
• the value of loose parts and the learning in loose parts. Both from Community Playthings, 2015
• the theory of loose parts – addressing creativity, from An Every Day Story, 5 March 2013
• theory of loose parts – the what, why and how, from Let the Children Play, 10 February 2010.
We love mud play so much we have a whole page dedicated to it!
Go to our Mud page.
with sections on
International Mud Day
Mud Day resources
Free Making a Mud Kitchen book
Mud Kitchen book translations (9 different languages)
Mud activities (including free activity sheets)
Muddy case studies
Mud on Social Media
Research & reports
The impacts of unstructured nature play on health in early childhood development: A systematic review
‘Nature play had consistent positive impacts on physical activity outcomes and cognitive play behaviours (imaginative and dramatic play). ‘ Dankiw, Tsiros, Baldock & Kumar, University of South Australia, 13 February 2020.
‘The recommendations within (this report) contribute to our vision of ‘whole child’ health and wellbeing.’ Includes a chapter on outdoor & indoor play, and the health benefits of play. October 2015.
‘A diverse, cross-sectorial group of partners, stakeholders and researchers, collaborated to develop an evidence-informed Position Statement on active outdoor play for children aged 3–12 years.’
It states “Access to active play in nature and outdoors—with its risks— is essential for healthy child development. We recommend increasing children’s opportunities for self-directed play outdoors in all settings—at home, at school, in child care, the community and nature.” International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health, 8 June 2015.
‘Research focus: to find out more about any wellbeing benefits gained by the children and young people from their play in Fort Apache and which aspects facilitate this wellbeing. It also looked at how best to carry out ongoing action-research in an open and accessible play woodland site such as Fort Apache.’ Part of the Good From Woods Project, 2013.
A range of documents by different authors offering an introduction to the concept of risk-benefit assessments, plus some templates for assessments, with a particular focus on mud kitchens.
The templates are working documents, offering you ideas rather than finished assessments. This is to ensure that the author of the assessments fully interacts with their own processes, and any assessment created is relevant to your specific setting.
These documents are a guide to support your own health and safety procedures and are not designed to be complete in any way.
For more mud stuff, including our free mud book, mud articles & resources visit our Mud page.
Click to download:
- Explanation Benefit Risk – Explanation: Niki Willows (pdf)
- Making things easier (pdf)
- Ingredients Benefit Risk – Ingredients (.doc)
- Resources Benefit Risk – Resources (.doc)
- Infrastructure Benefit Risk – Infrastructure (.doc)
- Individuals groups Benefit Risk – Individuals and groups (.doc)
- Weather Benefit Risk – Weather (.doc)
- Process Benefit Risk – Process (pdf)
- Digging: Gill Wildish (pdf)
- Benefit Risk Assessment Template: Gill Wildish (.doc)
Developing the Vestibular System with Stramarsh Outdoor Nursery
Brilliant little film explaining and demonstrating an important concept and key component of outdoor play: what is the vestibular system? What does it do? Why do we need it & how do we help our kids develop theirs? Created by Jess @ Stramash Outdoor Nursery, September 2019. (1 min)
Broxburn Family Centre Go Outdoors with Kirkhill Nursery
A joyful and inspiring little video of Early Years children playing outdoors in all weathers. 8 July 2019. (2 mins 10)