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Muddy Faces

Introduction to Active Boundaries

We are committed to supporting you & your groups to experience rich outdoor play & learning and nature connection in Early Years and Primary level, Forest School and other outdoor settings.

Active Boundaries is our most recent initiative and we are very excited and proud to share it with our community. As change-makers, we are constantly striving to deliver opportunities to develop good practice and empower practitioners to help children embrace the outdoors.

Outdoor Hub

Path Kirstine Beeley

What are Active Boundaries?

Establishing distinct areas (sometimes referred to as zones) in your setting for different types of activities and with diverse atmospheres is crucial for creating a varied and engaging outdoor environment. The boundaries defining these areas play a pivotal role, as they can either stifle opportunities and limit play, or restrict movement in and around the space.

The most valuable boundaries for children and their play environment are permeable. These boundaries allow for passage and encourage interaction. We've developed and titled them Active Boundaries, as they actively invite and facilitate action.

Thanks to Kirstine Beeley from Early Years on a Shoe String for the photo.

Robins Garden 2

Permeable boundaries

Within an Early Years outdoor space, boundaries help to separate and define areas/zones for different kinds of play. However, these boundaries provide most value for children when they are permeable, providing multiple ways to signal and encourage ‘crossing’: permeable boundaries are boundaries for going through.

“Physical elements that enclose zones and contribute to the fluidity among zones are objects such as low walls or stumps, which can be climbed over, or plant material, which can allow children to pass through its walls.”
(Herrington & Lesmeister, 2006: 72).

Thanks to Robin’s Childcare, Ipswich for the photo.

Child climbing over boundary

The importance of boundaries

No boundaries, or the absence of clear boundaries, can result in a chaotic play space, offering little respite for children who prefer a quieter corner to engage in calm time or imaginative games. This lack of demarcation can lead to confusion and unhelpful overlapping of high-energy activities, potentially hindering the overall play experience.

Restrictive boundaries on the other hand, have the opposite effect. They constrain areas to such an extent that opportunities to engage in child-initiated imaginative play and chances to move between different spaces are actively curtailed due to limited options for mobility.

Active boundaries are designed for going over, under and through; offering a range of methods to signal and encourage children to transition from one space to another. Effective active boundaries not only facilitate physical movement but also engage with the child on different emotional levels, promoting interactive and dynamic play experiences.

Bridge from naturally creative early years consultancy 2

Intentional boundaries

The design of a space has a profound impact on play, influencing the types of movement, communication, and problem-solving that unfold. A well-crafted network of pathways, boundaries and obstacles provides opportunities for diverse travel, crossings and encounters, offering a range of movements and interactions.

Offering multiple ways to cross boundaries, especially if these involve an element of challenge, opens up a world of discovery. This extends beyond a child's understanding of the physical environment to encompass a deeper comprehension of themselves and their place in the world.

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Crossing boundaries

The act of moving between different spaces and crossing boundaries serves as a catalyst for both physical and cognitive development, and enhances spatial awareness. As a child transitions from one space to another, changes in energy and behaviours naturally occur. The physical experience of passing through a boundary raises awareness of the new space they are entering, prompting them to identify hazards that require attention and act on behaviour cues.

These crossing points become organically integrated into daily play and learning. Over time they are likely to be influenced by the children themselves, evolving in appearance or functionality based on the children's preferences and interactions.

Garden playground new shoots pakuranga

Turning a space into a place

Active Boundaries transform a singular, undifferentiated space into several interesting and appealing places.

Active Boundaries complement the special character of each place, enhancing and expanding its play value.

We call this new approach Active because it captures the dynamic nature of these boundaries: they not only promote physicality but also stimulate emotional engagement by creating intrigue, opportunity and challenge, inspiring children to travel Over, Under and Through.

Thanks to New Shoots in New Zealand for the photo.

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Navigating boundaries

To navigate Active Boundaries, children must communicate, problem solve and develop resilience, undertaking a journey that goes beyond physical activity, fostering skills that contribute to their understanding of the world and support their all-round wellbeing.

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Different types of boundaries

Professor Jan White writes:

"Opportunity for boundaries and places to go through abound in an outdoor environment - through walls, fences, doorways, gates, gaps, stiles, arches, bridges, tunnels, tall or thick vegetation providing sides and even a ceiling, and looking through peep-holes.

Paying attention to boundaries in the physical environment, and how they can be crossed - experiencing and creating edges, separation and in and out - seems likely to provide some very foundational processes for understanding how the world works and how the child can operate in it, storing up intuitive intelligence for a great deal of symbolic and metaphorical application later on."

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Active Boundaries on the Outdoor Hub

On our Active Boundaries pages we explore in more detail the importance and opportunities of

Tunnel Natured kids

Working collaboratively

Muddy Faces founder & director Liz Edwards writes:

"Active Boundaries is a new area of work, and I am keen to hear if you already observe any of this practice or have implemented any aspects that you have read about in this section.

If you have any evidence, stories, videos or photos you would like to share please get in touch and I will see if it can be included in this section.

I would like to offer my sincere thanks to the people who have contributed to this dedicated Active Boundaries section so far:

Professor Jan White, author & director of Outdoors Thinking
Nic Crombie-Dawson from The Bear & the Fox
Kirstine Beeley from Early Years on a Shoe String
Narelle Debenham from Natured Kids (Australia)
Ann Thompson from Naturally Creative Early Years consultancy

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How do we fund our work?

We have researched what makes a good outdoor space and explored information about boundaries. All this work is presented in this dedicated section in our ever-expanding FREE Outdoor hub.

This journey has further translated into the creation of our Active Boundaries product range - OUT50 tailored for younger children and OUT80 designed for primary-aged children, both available in our shop.

Every purchase from our shop directly contributes to funding our ongoing research and development initiatives, enabling us to sustain our position as a prominent advocate for children in the outdoors.

Active Boundaries in the Muddy Faces shop

MFW4640 Massive Active Boundaries Set 2

Active Boundaries

NEW and EXCLUSIVE to Muddy Faces

The Active Boundaries range has evolved through research and consultation with outdoor education specialists. Explore the in-depth pedagogy that has shaped the development of our resources in our FREE Outdoor Hub.
Our Over, Under, Through (OUT) ranges go beyond promoting physical activity; they also stimulate emotional engagement by creating intrigue, opportunities, and challenges.

See also

Creating an outdoor setting

Guides, reports, studies and projects offering insights into designing, creating or improving your outdoor setting to provide safe, inspiring, accessible opportunities to play and learn outdoors.

Arranged, as much as possible, in chronological order.

Read More about Creating an outdoor setting

Natural Play Principles

The Natural Play Principles* are designed to articulate a child-centred and nature-focused approach called Natural Play. Natural Play enables children’s natural ways of growing, learning and thriving with the help of the natural world.

* developed in collaboration between Jan White (Early Childhood Natural Play), Suzanne Scott (Sandfield Natural Play Centre), Ann Thompson (Naturally Creative and Sandfield Natural Play Centre) and Menna Godfrey (Quackers Playgroup & Natural Play Centre).

Read More about Natural Play Principles

Loose parts, dens & block play

Explore benefits and theories, guides, articles and ideas for using block play, dens and loose parts in your early years, school and outdoor settings.

Read More about Loose parts, dens & block play
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