Literature Review on the Role of Outdoor Play in Children’s Learning

Published: 2021/11/30
Number of words: 3913

This literature view will disseminate the eminent viewpoints which surround outdoor play. A brief synopsis of the definition of outdoor play and its perceived importance in supporting children’s social development will be discussed parallel to a strong critical analysis of previous research. Other factors involved in the provision of outdoor play such as time and access to facilities, resources and employees’ perception and training in the outdoor environment will also be segmented according to their importance in outdoor play.

Recently, the government has placed an emphasis on outdoor play and its role in children’s learning with the formulation of the Early Years Foundation Stage (EYFS) (DfES, 2007) and more predominantly with the refinement of the EYFS (DfES,2012). Rivkin (1998) verbalises that one of the main advantages of using the outdoor environment is that it provides children with the space in which they can move without the constraints of internal environments and it has been described by some commentators as one of the most natural and powerful modes of learning for young children (Bilton, 2002). Bilton (2001) philsophises that children appear to love the outdoors, an phenomena which practitioners can sometimes overlook. This does seem to induce the question of whether practitioners’ perceptions have an effect on children’s experiences in the outdoors. Woonton (2006) expands on this sentiment as he claims that, if given the choice, children prefer to be outside for a large proportion of their time. The potential of the outdoor environment for supporting children’s learning is expressed in the current EYFS (DfES, 2012) which makes the point that in the outdoors childrens’ social relationships can be developed in an environment that offers scope for communication through the triad of action, movement and language. Furthermore, the deliberation in using the equipment and discussion and co-operation that comes through this puts children in certain situations where they can appreciate and respect the needs of others, which will help make them better people in the long term.

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The authoritative Plowden Report (CACE, 1967) suggested that play is the main way of learning in the formative stage of a child’s life and that in play ‘…children gradually develop concepts of casual relationships, the power to discriminate, to make judgments, to analyse and to synthesise, to imagine and formulate’ (CACE, 1967, p193). Additionally, the Rumbold report (DfES,1990) makes the assertion that children need to talk, play and have primary, authentic learning experiences as these are all essential for a child’s progression in life and academic skills. All of these government reports seem to convey the need for outdoor play as vehicle to develop children holistically. Moyles (2005) identifies that children’s emotional and social understanding is facilitated through outdoor play in terms of the attributes that children display in it such as: confidence, co-operation, spirituality and solitude. Developing children’s confidence correlates to the diaspora of challenges which are provided in the outdoor environment that allow children to test themselves at their own level and make continuous progression. Vygotsky (1978) construes this as children working within the parameters of their Zone of Potential Development (ZPD) (Vygotsky, 1978). Furthermore, Wood and Attfield (2005) make a discursive analysis of the importance of the development of social skills and emotional literacy within play as it plays a part in developing children’s self-awareness, self-esteem and confidence all of which are facets which underpin effective learning (Roberts, 2002).

History of Outdoor play

Outdoor play is a key factor in a multitude of aspects of children’s basic development. Pioneers and proponents of nursery education such as Froebel (1887), MacMillian (1930) and Isaacs (1932) all argued that early years education should entail active engagement with the outdoors. Forbes (2004) defines the key contexts of play as physical, social and symbolic which help us to carry out observational and discourse analysis of children’s speech and actions. Piaget (1962) and Vygotsky (1978) viewed play as a way of amalgamating a child’s learning which helps them make sense of the world. Vygotsky (1978) emphasised the importance of social interaction with other participants engaged in play. The pertinence of movement and social interaction has been widely recognised by Vygotsky (1978), Wells (1987) and Trevarthen (1994) who see social interaction and communication in the foreground of a child’s development. These viewpoints concur Wood’s (1988) theory that children are novices and adults the experts, therefore children need the opportunity to experiment and discover new ideas. Bilton (1998)observes that the outdoor environment has the potential to offer life-size social interactions and dialogue where children can  assume different roles and footings in conversations and establish appropriate tenors between themselves.

Forest schools

Forest Schools encourage children to go beyond the boundaries which they are normally faced with in a classroom environment (Doyle, 2006). Moyles (2007) extends this sentiment by advocating that practitioners still need to enhance their understanding of outdoor provision and that outdoor spaces still tend to be adult-built with lots of ‘stuff’ (Maynard and Waters, 2006). This illustrates the need for children to be actively involved in the planning and decision making processes of using the outdoors. Research on childrens’ play in kindergardens in Norway (Fjortoft, 2004) ascertained that children who experience wild and rough terrain with lots of undulated surfaces, with trees to climb and bushes to hide in, engaged more frequently in sustained collaborative play than in conventional play areas. This accurately summarises the ethos of forest schools of using the natural environment as a resource to facilitate a child’s development. Furthermore, the findings from Waller’s (2007) research, which examined the opportunities for social development when children were given the freedom to play in a natural environment, were in concordance with the sentiments expressed above.

Some researchers are of the disposition that the outdoor environment evokes a richer, more complex use of lexis within children. A primary function of playing with others is to develop language and interpersonal skills (Wood and Bennett, 1997) which collaborates with the concept of outdoor play as it allows children to play imaginatively with their peers. A study commissioned by the Foundation for Outdoor Adventure (Barrett and Greenway,1995) found that outdoor adventure experiences can enhance interpersonal relationships and improve socialisation as it facilities co-operation and group bonding among peers. An eminent report by OFSTED, Learning outside the classroom: How far should you go? (2008) evaluated the impact of learning outside found that when planned and implemented well, outdoor provision contributed significantly to improving pupils’ personal, social and emotional development. Furthermore, it is often the natural elements of the outdoors which are conductive to social development (Fjortoft, 2001) such as the slopes, vegetation and biodiversity.

Role of the Adult

With determining the role of the adult within the outdoor, Woods and Atfield (2005) suggest that it is to facilitate an environment which offers abundant opportunities for children to grow and progress. Ouvry (2003) argues that an adult should be as active as they are in an indoor environment to allow the children to harness as much as possible from the sessions. Others claim that to fully foster the use of the outdoors, children should be allowed to work autonomously in constructing things by choosing equipment from ‘sheds, baskets and boxes’ as ‘they will always use it more imaginatively than if we decide for them’ (Featherstone and Bayley, 2002). Bruce (1996) strongly indicates that both indoor and outdoor areas need to foster children’s creativity in developing their own play and that it should be set up for children to make their own decisions.

Moyles (2005) argues that the responsibility of the adult should be to provide real activities which children can perform in the outdoor environment that give them a chance to ask authentic questions, collaborate with their peers and the co-construction of ideas between children and adults. There are an innumerable amount of ways in which adults can model activities for children; such as contributing to the maintenance of the outdoor area. The role of the adult in modelling is fundamental to the Steiner method of education. One of the ideals of Steiner education is that the adult supports childrens’ positive social behaviours and their development of self-identity and self-esteem by involving children with the preservation and upkeep of the outdoor area (Oldfield, 2001). Some children become more confident outdoors, and express a willingness to play and interact with other children. Adults relate differently to children in the outdoor environment; Rivkin (1998) denotes that while inside children are expected to sit still and be quiet, whilst outside they have the freedom to engage in physical activity and express themselves. This means that they display overt behaviours without the risk of being disciplined (Bilton, 2002;Ouvry, 2003). Henniger (1985) studied pre-school childrens’ behavior in indoor and outdoor settings and found that the indoor environment may inhibit some children socially because of the limitation of space, floor covering and the limited noise levels.

Staff perception/training

Another notable variable which affects the use and implementation of the outdoor area is the personal educational philosophy of the Early years teacher, in particular their regard for the outdoor provision as a medium for learning and development. Moyles (2007) discusses why outdoor play may be limited in some early years settings, stating that it is due to fear of litigation and staff’s lack of expertise and experience of the outdoor environment (Maudsley, 2005). Moreover, a practitioner’s perception of the outdoors is very relevant to the experience which they will subsequently provide for children. Ouvry (2000) elaborates on this, suggesting that the desire and drive to make the changes necessary for children to go outside need to be present in order for children to fully experience the outdoors and many educators are unfortunately not enthusiastic about the merits of the outdoors. Furthermore, Waters (2006) describes some adults as bio-phobic, as they have an unnatural hate for the outdoors and will not entre it with pleasure. Moreover, this links to the adverse climatic conditions as it is the most unpredictable component of working in the outdoors, although children are used to the outside as a general learning environment and are less aware of the nuances than weather (Bilton, 1998). Therefore, it is only adults who are reticent in going outdoors in un-favourable weather. The forecasting of the weather can also be used as a highly effective learning tool for children to develop their geographical acumen (Bilton, 1998). Another extraneous variable, which has been proven to affect the experience children receive in the outdoor area is parents’ perception of using the outdoor environment. Parents need to see the tangible benefits and purpose of outdoor play, McMillan (1930) felt that if parents could watch their children engaging in outdoor play and if practitioners could interpret the play, explaining what their child is doing, then parents way be more agreeable towards outdoor provision (Bilton, 1998).


Throughout education, there is a varied and fragmented diaspora of play provision available within settings and the resources which are available for children to use. Dempsey and Frost (as cited in Pugh, 2001) highlight that materials and equipment which are provided for children strongly influence the type and quality of play they engage in, impacting further on children’s learning and development. This is in concordance with Whitbread (1996) who maintains the viewpoint that there needs to be a well-equipped environment to facilitate play. The current EYFS framework (DfES, 2012) argues that the outdoor environment is best when it is …’enhanced by an environment that is richly resourced with exciting play materials and open-ended flexible resources that can be adapted and used in different ways, according to the needs and interests of the individual children.’ (DfES, 2012, p3). Bruce and Meggitt (2002) extrapolate this having the duality of also meaning providing a well-resourced ‘outdoor’ area stating;’…the outdoor area needs to be available for most of the time…the outdoor area should complement the indoor, so that the children can spend all morning outside and have the same choices on offer.’ (Bruce and Meggitt, 2002, p.44).

Bilton (2001) points out that. even when provision of outdoor play is sufficiently resourced, the most engrossing indoor session will be abandoned by children mid session to seek stimuli outside; Bilton (2001) says this quantifies just how much children love the outdoors. Stephenson (2002) clearly agrees with this and further provides the justification for this is that practitioners are less restricted by routines in the outdoor environment, with fewer distractions; therefore to the child , the adult may appear more approachable.The way that the outdoor environment is equipped is essential, as it is central to the way in which play is allowed to propagate and flourish (Abbott and Nutbrown, 2001). Esbenson (1987) advises that the outdoor environment should be zoned to facilitate children’s diverse interests, some zones would contain climbing apparatus, others social interaction and sections for sensory or socio-dramatic play. Moyles (2007) suggests that there is a prevalent within the UK that we should ‘mirror the provision indoors to that outdoors’ which has led to books, puzzles, pencils and construction used abundant in the outdoors. This strongly supports Dowling (2010) who expresses the viewpoint that what is offered indoors should complement what is happening in the outdoors. However, it could be argued that these are outdoor materials and that outdoors should be disjoint from the indoor environment. Therefore, Moyles (2007) says that it is not enough just to go outside because many of the outdoor environments set up for children are synthetic and artificial. Warden (2007) discusses that some adults’ perception of resources is that materials which are designed by adults have a greater value, however, adults who are knowledgeable about the ways in which young children learn can see beyond this narrow viewpoint and see that many of these resources exude limited exploration and learning. This is consolidated by Bilton (2010) who states that it is not sufficient to move indoor resources outdoors as this does not constitute quality outdoor play. The outdoors offers children numerous. opportunities which are not possible inside Edgington (2004) suggests that in the outdoors children should be encouraged to work on a more active and louder scale. Therefore, resources need to be carefully accumulated in the outdoor environment and how effective they are at catering for children’s learning and development.

Health and Safety (Risky play)

Safety has become an overriding factor in activities, to the point that it is a hindrance. Moyles (2007) suggests that this culture is paradoxically unsafe as children are not involved in safety issues and do not learn how to keep themselves safe and be aware of imminent dangers. Bruce (2012) analyses the importance of risk taking and adventurous play in the outdoors and proffers the view that play outdoors motivates children to extend their own learning boundaries, to be adventurous, to explore a little further and to engage with risk in a supportive environment. Claxton (1999) firmly supports this, claiming that risk-taking is part of the toolkit for effective learners. In addition, Dowling (2010) states that practitioners should consider a risk benefit assessment approach where providers carefully consider some of the advantages of the risks for the children. There is shift in the way that risk is approached, The Better Regulation Commission’s report ‘ Risk, Responsibility and Regulation: Whose risk is it anyway?’ argue that risk can be beneficial and that managing risk is a shared responsibility.

Within the EYFS (DfES, 2007), statements concerning risky and outdoor play can also be seen ‘ Through play children can…take risks and make mistakes’ (DfES, 2007,p8). Taking risks is part of the learning process and children being able to be outdoors allows them to explore things that they might not be able to in the classroom.


There is also a large variation in the time which is allocated to outdoor play which is in accordance with the argument articulated by Bruce (1987) that “frequent lack of attention to the external environment must come from some bizarre assumption that knowledge acquired indoor is superior to that gained outside’ (Bruce, 1987, p55).

Within indoor activities children will more inclined to concentrate and persevere if they have the time to pursue interests, the outdoors is not conductive to this as McAuley and Jackson (1992) suggest that interrupting ‘children’s’ absorbed activity’ can subvert learning almost as much as allowing overt, maladaptive behavior. Moyles (2007) discusses the culture of the current schooling system in that children only get a limited period of time outside and some schools have extensive woodland but have a very restricted opportunity to experience these. A guidance document from the National Strategies suggests that ‘settings that have prolonged periods of free access to a challenging outdoor environment report that generally children behave more co-operatively, particularly boys.’ (DfES, 2008). Large construction areas and resources which promote imaginative play including making dens in trees and bushes all foster collaborative play. Staff ratios also affects the amount of time given to outside provision as it influences the degree of involvement of adults with the outside activities. Settings who restrict time in outdoor provision to set times in the day need to recognise that if children had free access to the outdoor environment there will be no strain on resources which can create difficulties such as children sharing provision and adults allocating their time fairly (Dowling, 2010). Children need time to develop their ideas and should not be disrupted by adults, the EYFS (2008) argues that children need time to play and work, that practitioners need to be flexible in their planning, so that children can follow an interest and if necessary, enable children to return to an activity at a later time. In terms of outdoor play, this means children need to be able to use both areas freely through making sure they make effective use of both spaces and most importantly have uninterrupted time to pursue interests (Bilton, 2010).

Stevens (2003) found that practitioners found it difficult to understand what ‘equal access’ meant and concluded that ‘simultaneously’ was a better word meaning that at any time there was free play inside, the outside should be available alongside this. However, within schools there is also pressure for children to perform and be hit their targets so some practitioners may argue that the pressures of these SATS and other attainment targets affects their ability to plan for the indoor and outdoors simultaneously as many view indoor activities being more conductive to their learning.

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A large outdoor area which allows for a variety of different perspectives from different heights provides opportunities for children to enhance and consolidate their spatial awareness and mental mapping skills through physical play (Moyles, 2005). Moyles (2005) suggests that space allows children to be away from adults if they want to be and offers more space for children to interact with their peers. Pollard (2008) argues we need to consider the organisation of space as this can impact on the kind of teaching, the attitudes of the learners and the quality of learning. Good use needs to be made of the outdoor area so children can work on a larger, more active scale than is possible indoors (DfCSF, 2008).

Dowling (2010) states that the aim of the outdoor space should complement what is available for children inside in order to allow for the flow and elaboration of ideas and to make it as accessible as possible. This sentiment is also discussed by Ouvry (2000) who states that this allows the outdoor experience to be on a much grander scale.

The themes which have been found in the literature and research studies have also been critically analysed such as time and access to the outdoor provision, resources and adult role and staff’s perception and training in the outdoor environment.


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