Outdoor spaces provide different play opportunities and experiences for children. Burke’s (2008) study of children’s play found that children’s accounts of their play featured the outdoor environment, natural materials and a desire to be in an ‘open’ space with opportunities to run and let off steam. The degree to which an outside space can provide these elements depends on where children live. An everyday outdoor environment for a child living in a city is very different to that of a child in a rural community. Whatever the landscape of the outdoor space, Mooney (2000) emphasises that children should be active and interactive in their environments and that interaction is essential for children to learn and develop. When children have time and space to play in outdoor environments which challenge children’s normal expectations and routine, they are able to experiment and experience different aspects of learning. They draw on their own resources to develop confidence in their play and build more sustainable social relations because they are more reliant on their peers to support them in a new situation (Casey, 2007).
Rasmussen and Smidt (2003) report that there are two key factors to outdoor play: the excitement factor which brings potential for challenge and risk, and the imaginative factor where the outdoor environment can provide limitless opportunities to create games of fantasy and engage children’s imagination. Some settings, such as a childminder’s, are able to provide flexibility in the outdoor environment which can stimulate these factors, whilst other provisions may not be able to offer such diversity in children’s outdoor experiences. How the outdoor space is used is vital to a child’s experience and this relies to some extent on the practitioner’s perceptions and the extent to which they become involved in children’s outdoor play. In a study of den-making in three different contexts – an urban private day nursery with a courtyard outdoor space, a rural private day nursery with a woodland area and a childminder with access to a public woodland area – the interaction of the practitioner along with the versatility of the outdoor space was central to the children’s experiences, the way they explored the possibilities of building dens and the resulting play that emerged from the influence of the environment (Canning, 2010). O’Brien (2009) suggests that practitioners can gain new perspectives on children when they observe them in an outdoor environment. They can reveal different interests, curiosity and confidence in an outside space compared to their indoor environment. When encouraged to follow their own investigations, children become more confident to explore and engage in their own interests. Chak (2007) identifies that expressions of young children’s eagerness to know through their curiosity and exploration can be a motivational force for the acquisition of new knowledge, learning and development. Coupled with the role of the practitioner to encourage and engage children in new experiences, children can discover new dimensions of themselves, such as determination and resilience.