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Investigation of outdoor play in early years

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: Young People
Wordcount: 5516 words Published: 1st Jan 2015

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Outdoor Play in Early Years – In whose best interest? This review examines the definition of play and outdoor play as well as the perspectives of the early years pioneers spanning over two centuries who has shaped our understanding of outdoor play such as Friedrich Froebel, Maria Montessori, Margaret McMillan, Susan Isaacs and Majorie Allen, better Known as Lady Allen of Hurtswood. It will also seek to address how outdoor play can be optimised in early years setting to improve children’s learning and development outcomes.

The scope of this review includes debates surrounding outdoor play, concerns and the advantages of using the outdoor environment. This review would also analysis previous researches on outdoor play and evidence which suggests that outdoor play improves children’s development and well-being.

Play is a difficult concept, and by its very nature cannot be pinned down or precisely defined. There is nothing tangible, predictable or certain about children’s play, and this makes thinking about play more difficult and sometimes uncomfortable for those who like things neat and orderly. Play sits uneasily in a culture of standards, measurable outcomes, testing targets and quality control.

While most of us know play when we see it, academics have had trouble defining it (Johnson, Christie, & Yawkey, 1999). “Play involves a free choice activity that is

non-literal, self-motivated, enjoyable and process oriented. Critical to this definition is the non-literal, non-realistic aspect. This means external aspects of time, use of materials, the environment, rules of the play activity, and roles of the participants are all made up by the children playing. They are based on the child’s sense of reality” (Wardle, 1987, p. 27). “Children do not play for a reward-praise, money, or food. They play because they like it.”(p. 28). Children who compete to make the best wooden ship are not playing. Children who are told they must use the block with an “A” on it to create a word are not playing, and children who are asked to label the colours of their paints, instead of using them to create a picture, are not playing.

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Article 31 in the United Nation Convention on the rights of the Child stipulates that play is a fundamental right of all children (Human Rights Directorate, 1991 cited in Steampfli 2008) and that play is essential for children to develop intellectually, physically, emotionally, and socially. Through play children learn to express their thoughts and feelings, develop language and social skills and become aware of cultural diversity in their community.

Filer, (2008), describes creative outdoor play as play which gives children the opportunity to use their imaginations, helps promote original thinking, flexibility, adaptability, empathy and the ability to generate multiple solutions to a problem. She express play as the most important activity that children will take part in outside as it is a means through which they find stimulation, well-being and happiness in order to grow

physically, emotionally and intellectually. She express that the outdoor environment is

well suited to meeting children’s needs for all aspects of play and is the most relevant way of offering learning based upon first-hand experiences and individual interests.

Waite et al. (2006) cited in Waller, T (2007) journal article point out, outdoor learning is not a single entity but comprises many different sorts of activity with distinct purposes. Outdoor environments afford opportunities for a balance between adult-led structured activities and giving children access to interesting outdoor spaces.

Friedrich Froebel(1782-1852) emphasised the importance of the garden and the educational importance of learning out of doors more than a century ago. To Froebel, the garden was both literal and metaphorical. He used the word kindergarten, a garden for children, rather than the word school and saw the kindergarten as a place where the child could develop in harmony with nature. Educators would provide a rich environment for growth, and would tend, nurture and cultivate each child just as a good gardener would tend a young plant. Froebel believed in a divine unity and connectedness between all living things, and it was therefore important for children to be close to nature in the outdoor environment. Through gardening and play outdoors children learnt about nature and about the growth of plants and animals, but they also learnt to care for and take responsibility for nature, and gradually to recognise their own place in the natural world. Children’s freely chosen game games outdoors were a source of fascination to Froebel. He saw in such games evidence of children’s growing sense of justice, self- control,

comradeship and fairness. (Tovey, 2008). Forest Schools which are closely associated with the Danish early years programme is inspired by the ideas of Froebel, traditionally favoured play, movement and fresh air (Stigsgaard, 1978, cited in Maynard, 2007), while a sense of connection with nature and the environment has been linked to the Danish notion of an ‘ideal’ childhood (Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), 2001 cited in Maynard, 2007). The development of young children’s understanding about the natural environment is seen as being an important aim of all day-care facilities (OECD, 2000 cited in Maynard, 2007).

For Maria Montessori (1869 -1952), working in a poor inner city community in Rome, Italy it was not the garden, but the ‘house’ that was the enduring metaphor for her approach to early childhood. The environment, she argued, should allow children to be like the masters in their own houses, that is it should be child-sized, offer independent movement and be well organised with everything in its place. It was not nature, but science and her notion of ‘scientific pedagogy’, which was a guiding principle. Using Froebel’s metaphor of the gardener she argued that ‘behind the good cultivator….stands the scientist’. This is a very different philosophy from Froebel’s garden where weeds were valued as much as the flowers. It was Montessori, who pioneered the idea of open access from indoors to outdoors and free choice and self direction, but choice was restricted. Unlike Froebel, Montessori did not believe the natural materials were educative and, therefore, she made no provision for play materials like sand and water. Rather she argued that structured materials, which had been ‘subject to the perfecting

hand of a higher intelligence’ (Montessori 1983 cited in Tovey 2008), were necessary to identify the ‘real’ or ‘true’ nature of the child.

Margaret McMillan (1860-1931) was a socialist politician. Her experience of running an open air camp for children in the slums of Deptford, South of London, where disease was rife, convinced her that time spent outdoors could dramatically improve children’s health and that the youngest children should be the focus of attention. She developed an open air nursery school for children, and literally designed and built a garden for children. The garden was central and the indoor spaces were merely shelters for use in very bad weather. Everything, she argued could take place outdoors, play, sleep, meals, stories and games. She argued that there was no need for artificial didactic apparatus to stimulate children’s senses in isolation when real first-hand experience offered richer and more meaningful opportunities. A nursery garden must have a free and rich place, a great rubbish heap, stones, and flints, bits of can, and old iron and pots. Here every healthy child will want to go, taking out things of his own choosing to build with. (McMillan 1919 cited in Tovey 2008).

Susan Isaacs (1885-1948) worked in a very different social context from McMillan. She opened the malting House School in Cambridge in 1924, a school for highly advantaged children of professional parents. It was an experimental school that had two aims: ‘to stimulate the active enquiry of the children themselves rather than to teach them’ and to

bring within their immediate experience every range of fact to which their interests

reached out’ (Issacs 1930 cited in Tovey 2008:46). Children were given considerable freedom for Isaacs argued that ‘play has the greatest value for the child when it is really free and his own’ (Isaacs 1929 cited in Tovey 2008:46). The garden included grass, fruit trees, a climbing frame, slides, movable ladders, trees for climbing, flower and vegetable garden with individual plots for each child and a range of animals. The garden provoked children’s curiosity and enquiry. It offered challenge and risk and children had considerable freedom to try things out, to question, to experiment and to follow wherever their curiosity led. However, this freedom also had constraints. Eg. Children were allowed to climb on the summer house roof, but only one child at a time was allowed. Like Froebel and Montessori before her she argued that freedom brought responsibility, but it also empowered the children to develop skills to be safe. Isaac view of childhood is one of passion. Young children had a passion for finding out about and striving to understand the world. Although she tried to observe children in free conditions she also recognised, unlike Montessori, that it was impossible to discover the ‘natural child’.

Marjorie Allen (Lady Allen of Hurtwood) 1897-1976 featured less in education literature but nevertheless deserves an important place as a pioneer of outdoor play areas for young children. She was active in campaigning for better provision for young children and became president of the nursery school association, and a founder member of the worldwide organisation Mondiale Pour L’Education Prescolaire (OMEP). She designed play areas for many nursery schools including gardens with sand pits and paddling pools

on roof tops of blocks of flats in Camden, London. She is associated most for bringing the idea of adventure or junk playgrounds to Britain. She argued that children seek access to a place where they can dig in the earth, build huts and dens with timber, use real tools, experiment with fire and water, take really great risks and learn to overcome them….(Allen cited in Rich et al 2005:46)

She was damning in her criticisms of conventional playgrounds that are static, dull, unchallenging, and which do not account for young children’s drive to explore, imagine, create and to seek companionship. The tendency for ‘ordering a complete playground from a catalogue is greatly to be deployed: this lack of enterprise spells dullness and monotony and only the manufacturers benefit (Allen 1968 cited in Tovey 2008:50). Lady Allen’s vision for challenging outdoor play environments, her belief that children with disabilities were entitled to equally rich and exciting environments, and her knowledge, from careful observation, of the impact of design on children’s play is still influential today particularly in the playwork field.

These developmental emphasis on play and playgrounds for nursery school playgrounds and kindergartens was later reinforced by the work of early 20th century child research centres and figures such as Piaget (1951), Vygotsky (1978) Bruner, et al (1976), and Huizinga (1950). The developmental emphasis continues in the early 21st century. Until recently, preschools were relatively unaffected by contemporary high stakes testing and continued to focus on play as a primary vehicle for learning and development.(Frost 2006).

A research study by Clements (2004) reveals that children today spend considerably less time playing outdoors than their mothers did as children. The study reveals several fundamental reasons for this decline, including dependence on television, digital media, and concerns about crime and safety. The study also conveys findings related to the frequent use of electronic diversions. Maynard (2007) also linked the growing interest in Forest School to a concern that children’s outdoor play is in decline. Parents, it is suggested, are reluctant to let their children play outside as they once did for fear of strangers, traffic or violence and as a result, it is also suggested, children’s play revolves around organized recreational activities or is home-centred and focused on computers, video games and television. This, it is maintained is having a negative impact on children’s social and emotional competence while also contributing to an epidemic of child obesity.

Maynard & Waters (2007), in their journal also identified recent years reports about the use and abuse of the outdoor environment have rarely been out of the media. These reports, often backed by the ‘latest research findings’, have focused on concerns about environmental damage as well as issues such as ‘stranger danger’, children’s lack of physical activity, the rising levels of childhood obesity, as well as a more general lack of connectedness with nature. A view which agrees with Froebel who sees garden as a spiritual place where children could grow and develop in harmony with nature, and begin to sense their own place in the natural world. It was a place for creative and imaginative play.

There is growing public policy interest in children’s play. Politicians and opinion formers are interested in exploring how good play opportunities can help improve quality of life and safety in neighbourhoods, tackle obesity and promote children’s well being, support children development and build community cohesion. Alongside, there is a growing view that good play experiences are not only an essential part of every childhood, but also a key public responsibility and an expression of our social obligations towards children. (Filer, 2008:14).

Dr Aric Sigman, of British Psychological Society, recommends that children under three should be banned from watching TV, and older children, aged 3-5, should be restricted to viewing one hour a day of good quality programmes. Children spend more time looking at the screens than they do outside doing real things, which is detrimental to their health and well being, particularly in the long term. He recommends that children should be outside experiencing real life and real things (Sigman, 2005 cited in Filer 2008).

One way in which government has attempted to address these concerns has been to raise awareness of, for example Healthy Schools programme, Food in Schoool programme, School Fruit and Vegetable scheme, Physical Education, School Sport and Club Links programme (DSCF, 2008)

The introduction of Early Years Foundation Stage Curriculum (EYFS) in September 2008 in England for children from birth to five (DSCF, 2008) emphasise the need for the provision of regular outdoor experience.

However, Waller (2007), in his article identified that a clear pedagogy for the use of the outdoors as a site for learning has not been established and, as (Fjortoft, 2001 cited in Waller 2007) and (Waite et al.2006 cited in Waller 2007) point out, there has been relatively little research on what actually happens in outdoor environments.

The EYFS now recognises that the environment plays a key role in supporting and extending children’s development and learning under theme 3: enabling environments which is line with the Macmillan’s theory which allowed children free access to play areas and gardens and was not predicated upon a fixed time schedule. The importance of outdoor learning is also emphasised in the effective practice: outdoor learning as below:

‘Past generations of children benefited from extended amounts of unsupervised time outdoors, and as adults they look back fondly at these early experiences. Indeed it is widely recognised that such experiences make a positive impact and as adults we are aware that it shaped many aspects of our own development and health……………….

Despite this cultural shift away from outdoor play and learning, it remains essential to children’s health, development and well-being. Consequently, it is vital that early years settings maximise children’s opportunities to be outdoors: for some it may be their only opportunity to play freely and safely outside……………………………….

Outdoor learning encompasses all that children do, see, hear or feel in their outdoor space. This includes the experiences that practitioners create and plan for, the spontaneous activities that children initiate, and the naturally occurring cyclical opportunities linked to the seasons, weather and nature’. (DCSF, 2007)

It is evidenced that a lot of recent and old research into outdoor play are in agreement that it is beneficial for children to be outside experiencing real life, real things, in order to grow and develop holistically. Most of the researches also concluded outdoor is a place where the child could develop in harmony with nature, a place to begin to sense their own place in the natural world and a place for creative and imaginative play. Good play experiences are seen as an essential part of every childhood which would lead to improve quality of life, tackle obesity and promote children’s well being. However, Majorie Allen criticized the conventional playgrounds seen at majority of the nursery and pre school these days as static, dull, unchallenging, and which do not account for young children’s drive to explore, imagine, create and to seek companionship. Finally, according to the literatures, one of the main advantages of using the outdoor environment is that it provides children with the space to move freely. (Fjortoft 2001, 2004 cited in T.Maynard et al 2007) report on research from Scandinavia, which demonstrates that children who play in flexible, natural landscapes appear to be healthier, have improved motor fitness, balance and co-ordination, and demonstrate more creativity in their play. It can be concluded based on the literature review above that experiences of the outdoor play and learning suggests that early years practitioners should recognise the significant potentials of outdoor learning highlighted above, in addition to developing outside play opportunities within their gardens; they should also consider giving children regular opportunities to experience wild natural environments.


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ABSTRACT: I have worked in different setting during my course and I have noticed that outdoor play is not particularly well planned by the practitioners. It seems to be seen as an opportunity for the staff have a break and for the children to let off steam. Play is children’s natural way of doing stuff to build for children to build self-esteem and social skills and the philosophy behind the Early Years Foundation Stage Curriculum supported this very much. The aim of my study is to look at how children participate in outdoor play in Sandringham school environment compared with regular setting with limited outdoor space with fixed and movable apparatus such as climbing frames, slides and bikes etc as well as to encourage practitioners to reflect on their practices. My research draws on observation (both narrative and tracking method) of one nursery located in London borough of Newham- Sandringham School’s nursery in London and a regular nursery with fixed garden apparatus in Redbridge borough, Uphall School. My observation was used to find out how children attending both school nurseries react during outdoor session and how practitioners assist the children in extending and stimulating their learning and development.

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The play experiences of children at my own school Sandringham School nursery in comparison with the children at Uphall School’s nursery clearly indicate that children at Uphall school nursery spend less time playing outdoors than those at Sandringham school’s nursery. The study reveals that children at my school at Sandringham school’s nursery are engaged in depth active learning with their peers and practitioners, objects,

allowing the children to use their imagination more creatively. For example, during my observation, a child uses a tree branch to sweep an area under a large tree, which she described as Goldilocks’ grandma’s house.


In searching for my research topic, I have drawn on my experiences and interest during my placements. It struck me fairly quickly from observations in my various placement that outdoor play space in most of the settings is still just about physical development and not given the equal status to indoor play it deserves in terms of the planned experiences that are provided for young children. Majority of the settings outside play area are small with static, dull, and unchallenging equipments, and do not allow young children’s drive to explore, imagine, create and to seek companionship. Practitioners should promote and enhance the development of playground that offer a rich, multi sensory environment that is meaningful, imaginative and stimulating for all young children, providing them with ‘real’ experiences that help embed their early learning and holistic development and not just their physical development. Parents and practitioners agree from conversation with them that outdoor play is a natural and critical part of child’s well being, health and development and the importance of outdoor play is also reflected in recent government policies such as the Every Child Matters agenda (2003) and Early Years Foundation Stage (EYFS, 2008) curriculum embraces outdoor learning as it enables the children to follow their interest, make choices, forge links between their learning and develop ideas over time.

This study will evaluate the effectiveness of opportunities provided for children under five to learn in the outdoors, in a garden, or other open air space e.g. in Sandringham school nursery environment and a regular day nursery setting. The research aimed to investigate the impact that the type of outdoor play experiences in the two settings has on all areas of learning and development for children under five.

In this study I will use (Filer, 2008) definition of outdoor play ‘a creative outdoor play as play which gives children the opportunity to use their imaginations, helps promote original thinking, flexibility, adaptability, empathy and the ability to generate multiple solutions to a problem’. She expresses play as the most important activity that children will take part in outside as it is a means through which they find stimulation, well-being and happiness in order to grow physically, emotionally and intellectually. Outdoor play also offers play spaces that enable children to create play spaces themselves and to exercise greater choice over materials, location and playmates.

‘Being outdoors…..offers opportunities for doing things in different ways and on different scales than when indoors. It gives children first-hand contact with weather, seasons and the natural world and offers children freedom to explore, use their senses, and be physically active and exuberant’. (EYFS card 3.3 cited in Hitchin, 2007)


The research takes place in two different borough school’s nursery in their early year’s settings in England over a period of 4 months.

Setting 1: This is my own school’s nursery based separate building for the infants school building, this is located in a most multicultural state in town in Forestage, London area of the UK. Children aged 3 years to 5 years old attending the nursery on a half day and the next lot come for the afternoon session. The garden is a large part of it concrete and the other part was gated and covered with tree barks, with plastic climbing frame and slide, large tree on the other end of the gated part end bench under the tree and a large plastic turtle shape sand and water tray. On the paved area, there is a large wind chime resting on the fence and the other areas are left free for obstacle activity, easel, construction blocks, bicycles etc.

Setting 2: This is a school based in borough of Redbridge,

In order to establish children’s involvement levels in the two settings, I considered issuing questionnaires to both parents and practitioners. On discussing this with my School mentor, it transpires that the result will only give parent’s/ practitioners view on outdoor play and not necessarily give an answer to children’s level of learning and development physically, emotionally, imaginatively, and creatively through outdoor play.

In conjunction with the setting staffs, I have collected data using participant observations in the form of tracking observation method which was handed out to the practitioners to follow selected children during outdoor play at each of the setting to find out the children’s interest while outdoor as well as direct observation method conducted by

myself in the form of narrative observation to assess children’s involvement levels in two different outdoor environments. Observation is an important, if underrated, form of assessment. It may seem subjective, but it has a great deal of potential. Assessments can be made when the children are actively engaged in outdoor play and therefore the process on interaction with other children and adult can be observed. According to Creswell (2002) observations in a setting requires good listening skills and careful attention to visual detail. It also required management of issues such as the potential deception by people being observed and the initial awkwardness of being an ‘outsider’ without initial personal support in a setting (Hammersley & Atkinson, 1995).


The results indicates that there is quality adult-child verbal interactions at the sandhringham school than the other setting which was my main concern and according to EPPE (2004) and REPEY (2002) research findings which identified that more ‘sustained shared thinking’ was observed in settings where children made the most progress. ‘Sustained shared thinking’ occurs when two or more individuals ‘work together’ in an intellectual way to solve a problem, clarify a concept, evaluate an activity, extend a narrative etc. For example, a child sat under a large tree with few other children with an adult and she told the adult this is a forest, where the wolf is hiding and waiting me, I’ll be the goldilocks and you can be the bad wolf and the adult engaged the child in open-ended questioning which is associated with better cognitive achievement according to the EPPE research findings. The forest was later turned into grandma’s house they used drapes and plastic cover and securely pinned and another child sweeping off the dry leaves ‘I am sweeping my grandma’s room, because she is unwell and I need to help keep it clean’.

Where as at my other setting, the adults intervened mainly to ensure the safety of the children by encouraging a child to participate in an activity. For example, during an obstacle activity, the adult encouraged the child to walk on the blocks and offered a hand to boost the child’s confidence. An interesting observation is that there are a lot of initiated activities at the Sandringham school with interventions by practitioners when invited by the child to extend the child/ren’s thinking. Opportunities are provided for adult initiated group activities which according to EPPE (2004) research findings are most effective vehicles for learning. For example, a game of silence ball? – hide and seek game where the children have to listen to where the voices responding to their call is coming from to help them locate the people hiding. This game promotes listening skills.

However, majority of the activities at the other setting is usually free play with mainly fixed climbing frames and slides, large wind chime, and selection of choices made available by the adult such as sand and water tray, lego blocks on a carpet or tray, writing materials, dressing up clothes, balls and books which is alternated on a daily basis. There is mostly child to child verbal interaction.

The children in Sandringham school are engaged in more creative and imaginative play such as finding treasures, digging, treasure hunting lifting logs to look for worms which was in line with Friedrich Froebel (1782-1852) who described garden then as a spiritual place where children could grow and develop in harmony with nature, and begin to sense their own place in the natural world. It was a place for creative and imaginative play for investigation and discovery for songs, music and ring games. Froebel was perhaps unique in amongst the pioneers in linking garden design to his philosophy of children’s learning and in recognising the holistic nature of young children’s learning. He saw in such games evidence of children’s growing sense of justice, self- control, comradeship and fairness which I also noticed during my observation at the sandringham, school setting.

For example, each child is given opportunity to lead with an adult when doing the head count before entering and leaving the forest school. A child was upset because she wanted to lead on this occasion and the adult explained to her that she has had a turn last week and that everyone has to have a go before it could be her turn again and this helps the children to develop sense of fairness and justice.

The staff leading at the sandringham school seemed to have good knowledge and understanding of the curriculum as well as knowledge of child development and they have gained additional training on forest school approach, which I assume has helped the adult in facilitating children’s learning. For example, the children learn to use natural materials such as sticks to make a shelter, two other children uses large paint brushes with water to paint the wooden fence. Another girl went to paint a tree, which a boy was climbing on and he said ‘no Amisha, it’s going to be slippery’. Other activities observed at Sandringham school arethey are climbing, move over obstacles, carrying logs from one area to the other, eating outdoors, getting dirty while digging or hiding, opportunity to wander freely without constant adult supervision in a large space with lots of nature to see and explore at their own pace. All these will support the children’s emotional, social development, environmental awareness and spiritual wellbeing. It also encourages active learning, improve creativity and critical thinking.

From my observation of children at the other setting with garden equipment from a sale, the older children mostly run around the small garden or climb on the plastic frame and slide which I agree with Allen, M (1897-1976) spells dullness and monotony and only the manufacturer’s benefit. Marjorie Allen 1897-1976 also criticized the conventional playgrounds seen at majority of the nursery and pre-school these days as static, dull, unchallenging, and do not account for young children’s drive to explore,

imagine, create and to seek companionship.

However it is interesting to note during each observation at the other school that the tree bark that covers the garden floor offered scope for children with learning difficulty.

For example, the children use the tree bark to represent food served by one child to the other children and as they received each said ‘thank you’. While at the sandrigham school, a space under the tree was transformed into a Grandma’s house, Vygosky (1978) cited in Tovey 2007 argued that such play leads to higher level thinking because children are using objects symbolically. The act of transformatio


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