A Blog: The Importance of Increasing Children’s Outdoor Play Opportunities

    The importance of increasing children’s outdoor play opportunities is of major importance for our Canadian children’s health and development.

    Over the next several months, the Canadian Child Care Federation will be providing blogs on outdoor play from several educators that are involved in the Building Capacity – Creating Specialized Outdoor Play Training to Empower Children’s Experiences, led by Okanagan College and funded by the Lawson Foundation http://lawson.ca/

    This blog is written by Dr. Beverlie Dietze.  Beverlie has been researching and writing about outdoor play for several years.  She has delivered a number of key note addresses and workshops related to outdoor play nationally and internationally.  She holds a Bachelor of Education from UNB, a Masters of Adult Education from St. Francis Xavier University and a PhD from the University of Toronto.  She also holds two diplomas from Sheridan College.  For further information contact bdietze@okanagan.bc.ca


    How gardens can become the place to begin the conversation of how the recommendations in The Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada (TRC, 2015) – A Call to Action can advance children’s outdoor learning experiences

    Across Canada, many organizations and communities are seeking to understand the recommendations outlined in the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada report and how they can take action to change practices to support the recommendations. Among the 94 recommendations, specific to early childhood education, “a recommendation in the substantial education calls upon federal, provincial, territorial, and Indigenous governments to develop culturally appropriate programs for Indigenous families” (p. 1). Ideally, early learning teachers will engage in discourse and engagement among various communities of practice to gain insightfrom a theoretical and practical perspective of what reconciliation means in relation to early learning programs and the learning experiences that may be extended to children and families.

    There are many ways in which early learning programs can support new ways of practice that draw upon indigenous practices, including ecological knowledge and sharing of learning. For example, earlier this month, I observed pre-school children exploring a new garden that has been established to celebrate and recognize the knowledge of Indigenous peoples of our region. I listened to the children and observed them on the paths, stopping to look at flowers or bugs, and rocks and wood pieces amongst the plants. I observed some children bending down to smell a flower or have it tickle their cheek, while others just stopped in the moment to look down, to look up, and look at many places in between. I heard teachers having dialogue about the similarities and differences of the plants. And I listened intently to the children telling stories around the story pole.  The observations reinforced how gardens offer children both an individualistic and collective experience.

    We have long advocated for early learning programs to have gardens, but now, think about the benefits of establishing gardens or parts of gardens that include plants reflective of indigenous cultures and that are native to the geographic area. Learn about the common plants that Indigenous peoples use for food, medicine, or ceremonial purposes – how might they be incorporated into the garden and why? Think about how a garden becomes a natural place to encourage dialogue about everything that makes up a garden – soil, plants, bugs, and water, and how each of these are essential for environmental sustainability and stewardship. Think about how the garden becomes a place for all children and families to learn about how caring for land, animals, bugs, and plants has contributed to Indigenous peoples developing their knowledge and wisdom about ecological principles and practices (Turner, Boelscher & Ignace, 2010), that are now essential to support environmental stewardship. Think about how story poles could provide opportunities for children to explore the relationship of land, animals, and plants, and people and how elders could share their knowledge about these topics with younger generations. How might such practices enhance current early learning programming and bring new ways of knowing into our practice with children, families, and community?

    Gardens are places for teaching, learning, rejuvenation, and making connections with nature, people and places (Dietze & Kashin, 2016). They are a place to advance children’s outdoor learning experiences.  And finally, they are a place for early learning teachers to begin the conversations with children and families about the recommendations in The Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada (TRC, 2015) – A Call to Action.


    Dietze, B., & Kashin, D. (2016). Empowering pedagogy for early childhood education. Toronto, ON: Pearson.

    Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada. (2015). Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada: Calls to action. Retrieved from: http://nctr.ca/assets/reports/Calls_to_Action_English2.pdf

    Turner, N. J., Ignace, M. B., & Ignace, R. (2000). Traditional ecological knowledge and wisdom of aboriginal peoples in British Columbia. Ecological applications, 10(5), 1275-1287.

    How Outdoor Play Environments Contribute to Children’s Development

    We often here adults saying – “oh, the children are just outside playing” or children saying “I don’t want to go outdoors. I want to play with”.  We also hear many adults suggest that children learn far more indoors than outdoors. Research is telling us that outdoor play offers children far more learning opportunities than indoor environments.  Below, I provide an overview of some of the key attributes children gain from outdoor play.

    Physical literacy– Running, jumping, swinging, climbing and moving bodies in unique way is necessary for children’s physical development.  When children are engaged in play that requires them to use their bodies in multiple ways such as big body play, they are intuitively learning about reflexes, movement control, how to balance, and how to use their bodies within the space.

    The level of physical activity begun in childhood has a significant influence on later life.  Children that develop strong balancing skills will be better prepared for body movements in later life.  Strong muscles and bone density decrease the severity of an injury and healing time in case of injury.  Physical and active outdoor play improve heart and lung function, reduces overweight and obesity issues, as well as high cholesterol.

    Children require environments where they can engage in outdoor play that builds upon both their fine and gross motor development. Construction play, games, and physical motion including pushing, pulling, stretching upwards and downwards, climbing, squatting, and speed are essential for physical activity (Sport for Life http://www.physicalliteracy.ca/).

    Emotional development is complex.  During the early years, children are developing the framework to manage feelings about one’s self and others. Outdoor play experiences influence children’s ability to build self-confidence. A child’s self-confidence strongly influences their desire and ability to take risks in their play and learning environments. When there are outdoor play options, children are better able to experiment with various emotions such as joy and fear.  Children who experience stressful or traumatic living environments, such as child abuse or changes in family units or disasters, they benefit from having active outdoor play environments that allow them to formulate a variety of play options that they can use to work out aspects of stress that they are dealing with. This helps them to work through the trauma (Shanker, 2016).

    Social development occurs more naturally in outdoor environments than indoors because of peer play, the space and options to move, create, and explore within the environment.  Outdoor play is where children learn to take turns, self-regulate, interact with peers, and understand social norms such as what behaviours are acceptable and what ones require refinement. They determine when to engage in group play options and when they wish to be alone and enjoy solitary play.

    Early learning environments that have places for children to engage in solitary play are supporting them in developing their sense of being – which is associated with independence and independent thinking.  Solitary play helps children develop their creativity, problem solving, ability to be alone, being comfortable playing alone and building upon their interests and strengths on topical issues. Children may engage in solitary play at times when they wish to observe how others engage in a particular task or activity. The learning that occurs through their observations may become part of their plan as to how to tackle a new experience.

    When children engage in group play, they are also developing important life skills.  Group play influences children’s knowledge about and behaviours related to social norms, cultural rules and diversity in ways of knowing.  Group play, such as rough and tumble and big-body play not only contribute to children’s physical development, this play helps them with developing cooperative skills and learning cues about acceptable body language and communication skills.  Outdoor play environments that provide children with options such as exploring den making or shadows and mud puddles, and having adults within the environments that encourage them to test and develop relationships, contribute to children wanting to explore, connect to their environments and actualize their sense of curiosity. Children require places where they can test strategies with peers, learn self-control and engage in negotiation skills. This can best be achieved in environments where adults support them in testing relationships and becoming involved only when children’s self-esteem is at risk.

    Children require space to move around and to use different parts of their body.  Social development occurs on climbers, bridges, platforms, ramps, and with materials that require children to work together to create, take turns, and problem solve.

    Inclusion:  Outdoor play environments that have multiple places and spaces for all children to experience inclusion off equality to all.  Inclusion occurs in spaces and places where children and adults advocate to celebrate the skills and abilities of all people in the setting.  Often, it is the design of the play spaces, including the equipment and surfacing, rather than children that influence exclusion of children with disabilities. When children with disabilities are in environments that support their development, positive self-esteem and an understanding of diversity is developed among all children and families (Dietze & Kashin, 2012).

    Cognitive:  Studies have shown that outdoor play affects a child’s neurological development and how the neural circuits of the brain become wired.  Brain development affects all aspects of development. Children who are exposed to outdoor environments that require them to move physically, participate in exploratory experiences such as putting things together and taking them apart, figuring out how to accomplish climbing to the top of the tree, or making the sand wet enough to mold particular shapes, all contribute to the critical thinking and problem solving skills used later in academic environments.

    Outdoor play environments provide children with new words, which in turn increases their vocabulary, reasoning skills and thinking strategies.  When language, movement, and self-regulation skills are combined, children increase their abilities to focus and control their behaviours, including how they problem solve and work with their peers.  Challenging outdoor play opportunities increase children’s manipulative skills, their abilities to make appropriate judgments and reasoning, and use their creativity to support their ideas and perspectives.

    Children’s cognitive skills can be enhanced when they have access to outdoor experiences such as climbing and swinging to support perceptual processes.  Spatial orientation can be achieved through areas that require children to climb, crawl under and over, and build vertically and horizontally.  Scientific principles including gravity and spatial awareness is gained from outdoor play that includes speed, height, and rapid movement.

    Outdoor play and games are essential to children’s development.  Whether the games are  individually played or are group games, are traditional ones, or those that children create, games support children in acquiring skills needed to make decisions, make up and/or follow rules and begin to understand strategies and consequences.  Games create a sense of peer cooperation, success and failure, and risk and problem solving.  These skills transfer to later academic learning.

    Environmental citizenship refers to the perspective that children and adults are an integral part of the environment and how we interact, engage with, care for and protect the ecosystems will impact the future of living space. Becoming a positive environmental citizen begins with the role modeling that children are exposed to during their outdoor play experiences. Outdoor play environments that provide children with space, time, and natural environments for activities and exploration and that supports them in engaging in discoveries that move from simple to more complex, contributes to them learning to become more focused. The more play that includes exploring their environments and building an appreciation for items such as rocks, water, bugs, and trees, the more children begin to develop skills and attitudes of environmental citizenship (Blanchet-Cohen & Elliott, 2011).

    Think about indoor and outdoor environments.  When you think about indoor play experiences how does it compare to what children gain outdoors?  Why, if children gain so many benefits from outdoor play, is it such a small portion of their daily routine?  How can we support parents and educators in advancing the outdoor play movement so that we contribute to the health and wellness of children and society?


    Blanchet-Cohen, N., & Elliot, E. (2011). Young children and educators engagement and learning outdoors: A basis for rights-based programming. Early education & development, 22(5), 757-777.

    Dietze, B., & Kashin, D. (2012). Play and Learning in Early Childhood. Toronto, ON: Pearson Canada.

    Shanker, S. (2016).  Self-Reg: How to Help Your Child (and You) Break the Stress Cycle and Successfully Engage with Life.  Penguin Random House.


    Loose Parts and Tinkering = Learning

    As I have been watching children engage with many loose parts, I have been intrigued by how when the loose art is new to them that they engage in a tinkering process. This makes sense to me because children satisfy their curiosity in a number of ways depending on the environment and the resources within the environment.  Think about how often children engage in the process of questioning.  Now think about how they tinker with something new before they fully engage the item in their play.  Tinkering can be described as an active engagement and manipulation with materials or experiences that children do to figure out ideas and answers to questions.

    During outdoor play, curious children may tinker with materials and ideas when they first begin to determine how to make a den or a shelter. Where is the ideal place to build a shelter?  Is it in open space or near a tree?  How might they get the poles to stand up?  How might they get the branches to say on the shelter? Tinkering with ideas supports children exploring, experimenting, engaging with materials in ways that offer new options, and ultimately learning through trial and error. When children are given the time, place, materials that they can combine, assemble, take apart, create with, and have adult endorsement to tinker, they become immersed in the experimentation and discovery, which increases their desire to expand additional explorations.










    What Tinkering in Outdoor Play Looks Like

    Learning Feature Children Environment
    • Children become interested in spaces, places or materials. They put things together, move items, take things apart, reflect upon experience and start over again. They invest large amounts of time with the materials and their ideas.
    • Children combine different types of materials in their exploration.Children observe others with the same material, and then try their ideas.
    • Children ask questions of their peers or adults about the materials they are using.
    • Variety of materials, including recyclables, loose parts, familiar and unfamiliar materials that trigger curiosity and inquiry.
    • Places and spaces for tinkering to occur.
    • Adults that use open-ended questions to expand children’s thinking.
    Social partnerships
    • Children seek support and engage with others to gain new ideas needed to support their tinkering of their work and to develop new ideas.
    • Children request help from others to help solve a problem.
    • Children invite others to work with them on a particular idea.
    • Adults offering children role modeling and opportunities for discussions, debates, and expansion of flexible thinking.
    • Peers supporting peers encouraged by adults.
    • Children set individual goals and ideas.
    • Children create a purposeful plan in examining their idea, material or goal.
    • Children take risks with their ideas and in exploring new materials or ways of combining previous knowledge with new ideas and intentions.
    • Children figure out when they are stuck and what resources they can draw upon to move their thinking in a new direction.
    • Children develop their own questions and construct new ideas.
    • Documentation through pictures or stories that capture the experiences and sequence of exploration.
    • Additions of new materials or language that will trigger further curiosity and tinkering.
    • Adults that observe and listen to the children and offer input when required.
    • Multiple pathways are encouraged.
    Belonging and Well-being
    • Children feel a sense of belonging as they contribute to the sharing of the tinkering experience
    • Children feel successful in the open-endedness of the experience and their opportunities for expression.
    • Children and their families can contribute to the collections of materials for tinkering encouraging a sense of belonging.
    • Materials are included to support a broad range of development and skill.
    • Through scaffolding, adults and peers offer opportunities for children to be challenged while continuing to learn and develop.
    Creativity and Expression
    • Children’s opportunity for creativity supports their artistic expression.
    • Children express themselves in multiple languages.
    • Different ways are offered to create inventions, contraptions, machines and art.
    Actualizing discoveries
    • Children share how to do something with others.
    • Children apply their knowledge in new situations.
    • Documentation is continuous and children’s learning celebrated.

    Table 1  Tinkering and Outdoor Play

    Children require the space, time and unique loose parts to be available to them. Different type of loose parts advances children’s tinkering, questioning, intuitiveness, and innovation.  These elements of activity increase children’s depth of thinking and problem solving abilities. What neat loose parts can you place in the environment to be able to see children tinkering in outdoor play?


    The Power of Rocks in Children’s Outdoor Place of Learning

    Earlier this month as I walked through my neighbourhood, I became intrigued with two children who had stopped their bike ride to explore a pile of rocks that were adjacent to the bike path. As soon as the children began examining the rocks, they engaged in dialogue such as “This is an amazing find – look at all the sparkles – look at the colours and look at the great big ones and the tiny ones.”

    As I observed the children engage in the rock play for more than 30 minutes, I was reminded of how such simple materials such as rocks add diversity to children’s overall play, their language, thinking patterns and creativity.  When children are given the freedom to explore rocks of all shapes and sizes, they acquire core principles of art, math, science, creativity, language, and engineering. The more early learning professionals listen to the children, the more opportunity they have to incorporate children’s quest for knowledge into the environment and support triggering their curiosity within the context of an inquiry-based place of learning.

    There are many definitions that describe inquiry-based learning. For me, I view inquiry-based learning environments as those outdoor play environments that provide children with time, materials, and opportunities to exercise their sense of curiosity, and where their questions, ideas, observations and discoveries are at the core of their daily experiences.  The National Science Foundation (2001) suggests that inquiry-based learning involves a process of exploring the natural or material world that triggers questions and making discoveries that contribute to a new level of understanding.

    Through the process of inquiry, children seek information and insight about their questions and interests in things that matter to them in their world and experiences.  They construct meaning and resolutions about their area of curiosity rather than being focused on the right answer.  As outlined in Figure 1.1, part of inquiry-based practices is for educators to create environments that support children in generating and discovering new knowledge and to be responsive to children’s needs. As part of this process, early learning professionals listen, observe, and understand when, why, and how to change the environment to trigger children’s new options for creating questions, problem thinking and problem solving.

    June 9 Figure 1

    Figure 1.1 Role of educators in supporting inquiry-based learning in outdoor environments

    Since observing the children on the bike path, I had the opportunity to place a number of rocks in an outdoor environment with children in a preschool program.  During the process, I saw children’s curiosity, learning ideas, patterns, and strategies unfold in very different ways from what I observed in their indoor environment.  I learned so much from the children about rocks, art, math and their ways of thinking and knowing. As children discovered the rocks in the play space, I casually asked a group what they knew about rocks.  They told me about what a fossil is and why some rocks are smooth, while others are rough.  As I expanded my questioning, they began to connect the relationships that exists among pebbles, sand and larger rocks.  Over the days of exploring the rocks, I documented core questions that the children posed about rocks and documented some of their explorations and creations as they continued to visit and revisit their rock play.  As noted in Figure 1.2, the depth and breadth of questions used by the early learning professional supports children in thinking and taking action with their exploration, which in turn advances their options for exploration.  Good questions support children in observing, making predictions, testing their ideas and designing models that help them take pieces of their knowledge and experiences and combine them to advance learning in new ways and in more depth.

    June 9 Figure 2 June 9 Figure 3 June 9 Figure 4 June 9 Figure 5

    Figure 1.2 Questions that Promote Inquiry-based Outdoor Play Experiences

    As the children engaged in exploring the rocks, I had three key roles as outlined in Figure 1.3. – Inviting children to explore the rocks, encouraging children to use the rocks in new ways, and having discussions with an individual child or group of children.

    Invite children to explore rocks Encourage children to use the rocks in new ways Engage in discussions with  children
    • Set up rocks in various places in the outdoor environment.
    • Place resources near the rocks such as books, hammers, safety glasses, buckets and water.
    • Ask questions that support children in investigating the rocks such as “Do you think that rocks will float or sink in the water?” Why do you think that?
    • Provide a variety of rocks and displays that use rocks in vertical and horizontal positions.
    • Place rocks in unusual places outdoors with notes nearby.
    • Add resources such as sand, sticks, sand, and tree cookies near the rocks.
    • Discuss with children how they would like to use the rocks and what they anticipate they will require.
    • Encourage children to take photos of their rock explorations and tell their story about the experience that can be documented for later reflection.
    • Use new words with children such as symmetry, vertical, collapse, extend, and asymmetrical.
    • Ask children about the processes they used with rocks for various experiences.

    Figure 1.3 Roles of Early Learning Professionals in Expanding Children’s Explorations of Rocks


    When early learning professionals have a genuine interest in children’s outdoor play, they will design an inquiry-based opportunity that will support young children in building on their prior experiences while triggering their curiosity to extend their options for new exploration and discovery. As outlined, rocks, although simplistic at first look, offer children a venue to expand upon skills that support their academic learning for life.


    National Science Foundation (2001). Inquiry: Thoughts, views, and strategies for the K-5 classroom. Foundations: A Monograph for Professionals in Science, Mathematics, and Technology Education, 2, Washington, DC.  www.nsf.gov/pubs/2000/nsf99148/htmstart.htm.

    How Loose Parts Support Children’s Ways of Thinking and Knowing

    It is always exciting for me when students in our colleges and universities engage in research on anything related to outdoor play.  When I worked at Mount Saint Vincent University in Halifax, Nova Scotia I had the opportunity to work with many great students.  I was inspired to write this blog, focusing on loose parts, after reviewing the research conducted by Caileigh Flannigan for her Master of Arts degree at the Mount.

    When I think back to my childhood in the early sixties, there were few commercial toys within the environment, other than my dolls.  However, there were old muffin tins, pie plates, sticks, and spoons, pieces of wood, ice cream containers, and natural items such as mud, leaves and pine cones. These items were essential to my daily play and are now identified as loose parts in the literature.  Nicholson (1971) coined the term loose parts theory to articulate the idea that children benefit from being given open-ended materials.  This means that the materials may be used alone or with other materials (Dietze & Kashin, 2016).  They are movable and do not have a defined use; rather children may use them in a variety of ways (Flannigan, 2015).  Nicholson suggested that “in any environment, both the degree of inventiveness and creativity, and the possibility for discovery, are directly proportional to the number and kind of variables in it” (Nicholson, 1971, p. 30).  The benefits of the materials not having a specific purpose is that when children become curious about the items in their environment, they can mess about with them, advance their creative thinking and “fulfill their own play objectives” (Canning, 2010, p. 561).  Fortunately for children loose parts do not have specific instructions of how the product needs to be used. Through exploration and manipulation of the materials, children figure out how they can be combined, redesigned, taken apart and put together in multiple ways. There are many items that can be classified as loose parts including the following ideas in Figure 1 below.

    Figure 1


    Figure 1:  Items that can be classified as loose parts.

    In Flannigan’s study (2015), she observed children playing with familiar and unfamiliar loose parts. Some of her findings revealed that when children are in environments where new loose parts are placed, there is an increase in the levels of curiosity expressed. She suggested that children engage in higher levels of physical activity, take healthy risks in their play and their interactions are extended to include different ages and genders when loose parts are available. Another important finding in her study was the relationship of loose parts to weapon or gun play. Her findings suggested that weapon play is common among children who are given the freedom to explore, discover and engage in play that is triggered by the materials within the environment.

    Often, early childhood educators eliminate sticks from the array of loose parts provided in the environment, primarily because of their concern for weapon or gun play.  Yet, there are many reasons for children to have access to sticks as part of their loose parts materials.   For example, listen to the conversations that children have when engaged in weapon play.  Often, they take turns being the good and the bad guys. This contributes to how children learn about morality – they learn about what is right and wrong and good and bad.  Weapon play leads children taking roles to “save” people as they become the hero in the play episode.  They reenact roles such as police officers and firefighters as part of their play. These are all positive attributes of play.  Therefore, when children are in environments that support them in having loose parts that align with their play episodes they are able to work through fears, gain insight from different perspectives, and learn to treat their peers in kind and caring ways. As suggested by Flannigan’s (2015) findings, gun or weapon play with loose parts has many developmental advantages including increasing children’s physical activity and curiosity within their play options.

    If you would like to learn more about Caileigh Flannigan’s study on Loose parts in the outdoors. Playing is learning, please email her at caileigh.flannigan@gmail.com.

    This blog is written by Dr. Beverlie Dietze.  Beverlie has been researching and writing about outdoor play for several years.  She has delivered a number of key note addresses and workshops related to outdoor play nationally and internationally.  She holds a Bachelor of Education from UNB, a Masters of Adult Education from St. Francis Xavier University and a PhD from the University of Toronto.  She also holds two diplomas from Sheridan College.  For further information contact bdietze@okanagan.bc.ca.


    Canning, N. (2010). The influence of the outdoor environment: den‐making in three different contexts. European early childhood education research journal, 18(4), 555-566.

    Dietze, B. & Kashin, D. (2016).  Empowering pedagogy for early childhood education.  Toronto, ON: Pearson Canada.

    Flannigan, C. (2015). The influence of loose parts on preschool children’s play behaviours. (Unpublished master’s dissertation). Mount Saint Vincent University, Halifax, Canada.

    Nicholson, S. (1972). The Theory of Loose Parts, An important principle for design methodology. Studies in Design Education Craft & Technology, 4(2).

    Imagining Outdoor Spaces that Intrigue Children in their Sense of Curiosity and Wonderment

    In the past several months, I have had the opportunity to be among many educators, landscape architects, researchers, school administration and others discussing key characteristics of quality outdoor play environments that provide the ultimate play opportunities for children. Some suggest that the spaces need native plants and bushes, others indicate the need for natural materials such as trees that have fallen or boulders that are available. Still others indicate that children require mud kitchens, ramps, tracks for the children to ride their tricycles and various places for children to climb.  These suggestions make sense to me, but then my mind wanders back to the play space of my childhood.  There were trees; lots of trees and broken branches and mud puddles, and places with ferns and grasses.  There were paths from the trampled down grass, and places to collect wild flowers such as daisies and Queen Elizabeth lace.  In essence, there was nothing manicured and the loose parts that were in the space, were those that from the forest floor or recycled from our households.  As educators, is it time to let those “good old days” go and face reality that children’s play spaces today need to be “designed so that they meet children’s needs and desires and to make positive contributions to their development” (Acar, 2013, p. 292)?

    Much of the current research has led educators with an interest in outdoor play to understand that the physical environment influences children’s behaviours, play experiences (Day & Midbjer, 2007) and their overall development.  There is a correlation between children who have the freedom to explore and engage with their outdoor environments, both in their family setting and school or child care setting, with their level of motivation, mental health and connectedness to their place and space (Ozdemir & Yilmaz, 2008). The diversity, complexity, organization and presentation of the outdoor space and surrounding environment influences how the venue supports children’s problem solving, creativity and advancement of concentration skills and learning. But how should we decide what an “ideal” space design for children in early learning and school environments?

    As cited by Acar (2013), Elizabeth Jones (1997) suggested that design elements of spaces be classified under the following design requirements:

    • Accessible-Inaccessible
    • Active-Passive
    • Challenge/Risk-Repetition/Security
    • Hard-soft
    • Natural-people/Built
    • Open-closed
    • Permanence-Change
    • Private-Public
    • Simple-complex

    These design elements continue to be important considerations for early childhood programs today and could be a starting point in examining the play space offered to children.  By using these elements in discussions with children can generate some interesting ideas and changes that will engage children with the space in new ways.

    Herrington, Lesmeister, Nicholls and Stefiuk (2010) created a Seven Cs model for designing children’s outdoor play spaces to maximize creativity and supports the physical conditions of outdoor play space with child development.  The authors’ suggest when planning outdoor play space that it is important to include stakeholders including children, parents, early childhood educators and a design team with skills in designing space.  The Seven Cs include:

    • Character
    • Context
    • Connectivity
    • Change
    • Chance
    • Clarity
    • Challenge

    For further information on the Seven Cs go to http://www.wstcoast.org/playspaces/outsidecriteria/7Cs.pdf

    In an outdoor play research project funded by five community Health Boards in Nova Scotia (Along the Shore, East Hants, North Shore Area, South Colchester and Truro & Area) Bora Kim and I created an assessment tool that was grounded in research from the fields of early childhood education, health and education; obtaining feedback from focus groups, observing children in a variety of outdoor play settings and completing a content comparison with other outdoor play environmental rating scales.  As outlined in Table 1.1, our assessment tool examines play spaces from the design, curriculum, and roles of families and the early learning practitioners with the children.

    Blog #2

    Play Zones

    Play Environmental Elements

    Physical Movement and Risk Taking

    • Flexible zones
    • Green zones
    • Affinity zones
    • Quiet learning zones
    • Seasonal zones
    • Variety of surfacing
    • Play shelter
    • Sunshine and shade
    • Beautiful stuff
    • Wildlife habitat
    • Climbing, jumping and height
    • Running and speed
    • Tools
    • Elements
    • Rolling and rough and tumble

    Loose Parts

    Experiential Play

    Involving Parents and Family

    • Types of loose parts
    • Mud play
    • Water play
    • Sand play
    • Construction play
    • Dramatic Play
    • Language and literacy
    • Art experiences
    • Music experiences
    • Math and science experiences
    • Parental education
    • Pedagogical documentation
    • Locally appropriate curriculum
    • Children’s clothing

    Role of Early Learning Practitioners

    • Planning
    • Professional development
    • Outdoor space design

    Table 1.1 Assessment Tool Focus

    According to Kritchevsky, Prescott & Walling (1969), space interacts with children and adults, and communicates ways that tell them how to act within the space.  High quality outdoor play space depends not only on the attractiveness but whether the space is open and diverse (Dietze & Kashin, 2012).  Children tend to spend more time playing when there are opportunities for them to expand their creativity and imaginations, and to make their space their own.  The components of children’s outdoor spaces either support or hinder the flow of children’s play.  This reinforces why it is essential that an analysis of the space be conducted to examine the strengths of the space and the opportunities for further development.



    The Risky Joys of Outdoor Play

    As I write this blog, I am watching children from my window toboggan down a hill – one that has trees, fences, and a hydro pole all nearby. As I observe the children ‘flying’ down the hill, (all without helmets) and see all of the potential items that many would consider dangerous, I also note that the children are on the hill without adults. To me, this is amazing because often our children are rarely seen outdoors without adults supervising them. Then, I think about risk taking and how important it is as part of children’s outdoor play. I am seeing the children using their bodies to roll, to stop themselves and to guide where they want to go on their magic sleds. I can hear the children laughing and screaming with delight. My regret is that I can’t just go out and snap a video to show you what I am observing. Fortunately, my neighbours, Maya and Justin have allowed me to enjoy their sliding experience.

    Allowing children to take risks is a challenge for many adults, especially for those who are risk-adverse or afraid of children getting hurt. Think about how you feel when you view children climbing up a tree or a climber. Think about children climbing up steep hills. Do you embrace these opportunities or hear yourself saying, ‘Be careful”, “don’t fall” or “maybe you should not do this”?  Educators are encouraged to provide children with ample opportunities to be in environments where they can take on physical challenges and be allowed to try play that has some risk attached to it. Risk taking contributes to children learning new skills, combining previous skills with new ideas, and discovering how to integrate new knowledge from the risk taking processes. Despite its benefits, many early childhood educators often express their concerns about the strict provincial or site standards and regulations that they must abide by that they believe reduce the children’s play options. Others, have shared their personal concern about a child being hurt in their care and what the response will be from parents and/or their supervisor. Perhaps by thinking about risk as a healthy phase of development, as educators, we can find strategies to help facilitate those play options for children.

    Snowy Hill

    Risk taking indoors is more cognitively based, while risk taking outdoors contributes to children testing their physical and social skills and their levels of self-esteem and confidence. When children develop the confidence to take risks during outdoor play, they are much more likely to extend risk taking during their indoor explorations.  Often risk and hazard are viewed as synonymous terms (Lupton & Tulloch, 2002), yet they are very different in meaning and in facilitating children’s outdoor play. In 2002, my late colleague, Barbara Crossley and I defined safe risk taking as “the opportunity for the active child to carry out an action involving risk in an environment that decreases potential for harm” (p.141).  Meanwhile, Greenfield (2003) described a hazard as an act or experience that children don’t predict, while a risk is an experience whereby the child has some uncertainty about being able to achieve the act. Frost et al., (2012), identify that educators and children should be examining environments to determine the level of hazard.

    Level I – Limited hazard

    Conditions that lead to minor injuries, such as scraped needs.

    Level II – Moderate hazard

    Conditions that cause serious injury, such as a broken leg.

    Level 111 – Extreme hazard

    Conditions that cause permanent disability or loss of life.

    Sandseter (2007) has identified six categories of risky play that she advocates children have exposure to. They are: Play with great heights such as climbing; 2) Play with high speed, such as running; 3) Play with dangerous tools, such as hammers; 4) Play near dangerous elements, such as cliffs; 5) Rough-and-tumble play with others; and 6) Play where the children can “disappear”/get lost or explore on their own. These categories help educators view the space and experiences extended to children.  The information is also valuable to share with parents as they identify the variety of risky play that children require in their daily lives. Children need to make a choice whether to take the risk or not. Adults and children benefit from collectively examining the play space on a weekly basis to determine if and what hazards are present and how to eliminate them. By role modeling this with children, they begin to distinguish between risk and hazard.

    There are short-term and long-term effects for children who do not experience risk-taking. Among the long term effects is that when children do not experience the lessons/learning gained from risk-taking when it is either positive or unsuccessful, they will show poorer risk judgement in the future (Little &Wyver, 2010). The short-term effect is that when children are prohibited or discouraged from taking risks, they will create their own risks and challenges, often being more dangerous with opportunities for injuries than if risks were encouraged (Gill, 2007; Greenfield, 2004). In our book, Playing and learning in early childhood education (2012),  (http://www.amazon.com/Learning-Playing-Early-Childhood-Education/dp/0135125464), Diane Kashin and I identified that when risk taking is limited, children will: create ways to bring challenge to their play; change the quality of their play experiences, resulting in the increase of unsafe risk occurring; reduce their desire to engage in curiosity, creativity and challenge in their play; and not gain the healthy kinesthetic and physical skills that build their confidence, judgment, competence and self-esteem. Often, children want to engage in risk-taking; it is the environment that stops them.

    Dietze and Kashin Book

    There are many strategies that early childhood educators may use to begin the dialogue with colleagues, parents and children on risk taking.  Here are our top ten ideas.

    1. Parents may require support to encourage children in being able to take risks. Provide parent information about the relationship of risk taking to child development and learning in newsletters and on web-sites.
    2. Invite parents to engage in outdoor risky play times with children and staff. This allows staff to highlight the types of play that are supporting risk taking opportunities.
    3. Educators and children create pedagogical documentation that visually shows children engaged in risk taking play. Include key points on how the play in the photos support risk taking.
    4. Educators examine their philosophy on and feelings about risk taking. As a group, they take inventory of the personal feelings of the team and then collectively develop strategies that will balance positions and roles during outdoor experiences so that children’s risk taking adventures will be encouraged and supported.
    5. Educators engage in observing children’s skills and then create opportunities for them to advance risk taking. Scaffolding experiences support children’s success in their risk taking play.
    6. Educators create challenging environments by providing a range of heavy loose parts such as ropes and rocks, differing terrain, offering materials that allow children to create large structures, and offer play spaces that allow for freedom to explore.
    7. Educators become conscious of their language with children during the outdoor exploration. They reduce the natural instinct to say “No! That is dangerous” and determine if the act is dangerous or if children are being overprotected.
    8. Educators examine procedures and practices at least every six months to ensure that they are addressing hazards and risks appropriately.
    9. Educators engage in professional development that shares current research on children and risk taking.
    10. Educators reflect upon on the following:
    • How do adults help children make the decisions about the risks they wish to take?
    • How do adults support children in helping children learn from their risks, especially with those that are not successful?
    • How do you offer children support for some of their explorations without reducing their enthusiasm for their potential idea?
    • How do you communicate with families about the value of children’s risk-taking and how often do you have such communication?
    • How do you continue to develop your knowledge and comfort for risk-taking?

    Ultimately, the outdoor play environments provides children with appropriate levels of risk that encourage them to think, take on new challenges and integrate their experiences with new  learning ideas.




    Dietze, B., & Crossley, B. (2002). Opening the Door to the Outdoors. Canadian Child Care Federation.

    Dietze, B., & Kashin, D. (2012). Play and Learning in Early Childhood. Toronto, ON: Pearson.

    Gill, T. (2007). No fear: Growing up in a risk adverse society. London, United Kingdom:CalousteGulbenkian Foundation.

    Greenfield, C.F. (2004). “Can run, play on bikes, jump the zoom slide, and play on the swings‟: Exploring the value of outdoor play. (Transcript).Australian Journal of Early Childhood, 29(2), 1.Retrieved from earlychildhoodaustralia.org.au.

    Greenfield, C. (2003). Outdoor play: The case for risks and challenges in children’s learning and development. Safekids News, 21(5).

    Little, H., &Wyver, S. (2010). Individual differences in children’s risk perception and appraisals in outdoor play environments. International Journal of Early Years Education, 18(4), 297–313. doi:10.1080/09669760.2010.531600

    Lupton, D., & Tulloch, J. (2002). ‘Life would be pretty dull without risk’: voluntary risk-taking and its pleasures. Health, risk & society, 4(2), 113-124.

    Sandseter, E. B. H. (2007). Categorizing risky play – How can we identify risk-taking in children’s play? European Early Child Education Research Journal, 15(2), 237-252. Retrieved 17th April 2014 from http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/13502930701321733#.UygSNM6YcRA