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Play, learning and the brain
Play, learning and the brain

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5 Outdoor play and learning

Early years practitioners have always argued strongly for children to have the opportunity to play in both indoor and outdoor environments. But currently, adult fears appear to be making outdoor play an ‘endangered activity’.

The following list, adapted from Kemple et al. (2016), offers some good reasons for making sure young children have the opportunity for outdoor play time.

  • Health and physical development: in recent years, childhood obesity rates around the world have increased. To combat this many countries are recommending outdoor activity for all children. Physical play outdoors provides important opportunities for the development and refinement of locomotor skills as well as fine motor skill. Vigorous physical activity increases lung function, contributes to muscle, bone and joint health and strengthens the heart. It also increases the flow of oxygen-rich blood to the brain, benefiting brain function.
  • Appreciation of nature and the environment: learning in an outdoor environment allows children to interact with the elements around us and helps them to gain an understanding of the world we live in. They can experience animals in their own surroundings and learn about their habitats and lifecycles.
  • Development of social skills: researchers found that when part of an asphalt play area was transformed into a more natural area with vegetation, children’s social behaviour changed; they showed less aggression when playing in the natural area than on the asphalt area. Another study that compares children’s behaviour on natural vs. less natural areas of a play environment found that children not only spent more time playing in the natural space and utilised the traditional equipment less, but also engaged in more social interaction.
  • Encouragement of independence: the extra space offered by being outdoors will give children the sense of freedom to make discoveries by themselves. They can develop their own ideas or create games and activities to take part in with their friends without feeling like they’re being directly supervised. They’ll begin to understand what they can do by themselves and develop a ‘can do’ attitude, which will act as a solid foundation for future learning.
  • Understanding of risk: being outdoors provides children with more opportunities to experience risk-taking. They have the chance to take part in tasks on a much bigger scale and complete them in ways they might not when they’re indoors.

Activity 5 now asks you to consider your own setting and identify the contribution your outdoor play provision makes to learning.

The activities that can be provided depend on the type of setting, the resources available and the practitioner's views about the place of outdoor activities in the overall development of the child.

Activity 5

There are links to two articles below. Article 5 is of a general nature, while Article 6 focuses on school contexts.

Select the article on outdoor play that you feel is most appropriate for your setting.

Article 5: ‘Outdoor Experiences for Young Children’ (Rivkin, 2000) [Tip: hold Ctrl and click a link to open it in a new tab. (Hide tip)]

Article 6: ‘“Playtime”: the use of UK primary school outdoor space between lessons’ (Mroz and Woolner, 2015)

Make a list of the ways in which outdoor play is of specific value when considering children's learning and the development of their brains.

Draw on:

  • what you know about the development of the brain
  • what you know about the ways in which children play outdoors.

You may find it helpful here to have an observational record or short video of children playing outdoors in your setting.

When you have done this, review and evaluate your outdoor play provision using the list of points you made at the start of this activity. If it is possible to work with a colleague, please do so.