Education Outdoor Play and Learning in Early Childhood Education
Eva Ärlemalm-Hagsér, Sue Elliott
  • LAST REVIEWED: 24 March 2021
  • LAST MODIFIED: 24 March 2021
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199756810-0273


Play in early childhood education is foundational, and outdoor play in particular offers unique learning and development opportunities. Outdoor play in early childhood education has significant historical legacies that have been somewhat eroded in the 20th century with the advent of manufactured play equipment, indoor screen-based technologies, and “top down” curriculum priorities. More recently, a reinvigoration of outdoor play has been inspired by the widely perceived Western need to connect children with nature: perhaps, nature as the “cure all” for the 21st-century lifestyles of many children. Outdoor play also aligns with the United Nations Convention on Rights of the Child to play, to experience nature, and, in the longer term, to mitigate global sustainability concerns. In early childhood education, indoor and outdoor play spaces must be considered as equally valid learning environments. Outdoor play may occur in center-based play spaces or beyond in local natural environments such as forests or beaches. Yet, too often, outdoor environments are limited or lacking in increasingly urbanized cities. Outdoor play and learning in early childhood education is a multifaceted topic spanning children’s well-being and physical skills, risk management, and play-space design to immersion in natural outdoor settings and teachers’ outdoor pedagogies and dispositions. As a consequence the literature is diverse, but also now expanding as advocacy for children’s outdoor play in natural settings gains momentum. This article outlines research on outdoor play and learning in early childhood education across six key themes. The first theme is Outdoor Pedagogy, and here the focus lies on the history, rationale, and knowledge about outdoor play, as well as the pedagogical role of the teacher. The second theme, Children’s Development and Learning through Outdoor Play, presents studies that reinforce the fundamental importance of outdoor play for children’s development and learning across varied domains. In the third theme, Play-Space Design, the historical beginnings of design are mapped to current design priorities around participatory approaches and natural elements. The fourth theme, Forest Preschool and Nature Connections, captures the rapid international emergence of these varied outdoor programs, the multiple benefits they offer children, and the emergent research. The fifth theme, Risky Play, presents scientific evidence about play, incorporating the risk of physical injury and the benefits of risk as children manage their risky encounters. The final theme, Outdoor Play and Sustainability, outlines possible shifts from anthropocentric being in nature as a play resource only, to a more ethically informed way of being with nature that challenges dominant global paradigms. Over the last century, the field has moved from a dominant romantic ideal of good nature and normative understandings of the child-in-nature to recognizing and examining understandings of power, gender, and dominant Western early childhood pedagogies and ideologies—as well as the anthropocentric relationships of human-nature and the interconnections between the human and nonhuman.

Outdoor Pedagogy

This section traces the historical positioning of outdoor play pedagogy from early pioneers to contemporary research and discourses, and then considers the pedagogical role of the teacher outdoors. Outdoor play has been integral to the history of early childhood education, and Friedrich Froebel emphasized the value of children’s outdoor play and believed outdoor play to be essential for physical, intellectual, and moral development (Froebel 1995). His pedagogical ideas suggested outdoor learning through exploration and play, nature studies, and gardening would instill a sense of responsibility toward living things, based on the earlier work by Rousseau and Pestalozzi. The tradition of outdoor play has had a strong impact on the organization of outdoor pedagogics internationally, as seen in Sandseter Hansen and Hagen 2016. Since 2000, the normative understandings of outdoor play have prevailed, with romantic views of children, nature, culture, outdoor play, and learning as foundational to a good healthy childhood. Concerns about equality in children’s play and learning have emerged and been challenged as studies have explored power, gender, and culturally specific discourses (Wattchow and Brown 2011) embedded in everyday pedagogy, outdoor play, and learning, (Änggård 2016, Taylor 2017). As for indoor play and learning, teachers have a critical role interacting with children to scaffold children’s outdoor play and learning, as shown in Wishart and Rouse 2018. It is essential for teachers to have clear understandings about the affordances and provocations within the outdoor play environment, as described by Waters 2017. Essentially, children can engage in child-initiated and self-directed play whenever they find themselves outdoors, in playgrounds, woods, parks, or urban walkways. Children’s outdoor play environments are places where they can experience and be exposed to seasonality and all the dynamics and spontaneity of the natural world (Waller 2007). Center outdoor play and learning environments need to be carefully designed, as discussed in Carr and Luken 2014 and Jickling, et al. 2018 (see also Play-Space Design), and built for child-initiated play scenarios as well as teacher-planned structured play experiences. Research about the pedagogics of outdoor play and learning emphasize the teacher’s role, the organization of the learning environment (playgrounds and natural settings), and the outcomes for children’s development—physical, social, emotional, cognitive, creative, imaginative, and their interconnections with the nonhuman world.

  • Änggård, Eva. 2016. How matter comes to matter in children’s nature play: Posthumanist approaches and children’s geographies. Children’s Geographies 14.1: 77–90.

    DOI: 10.1080/14733285.2015.1004523

    In this article, the author employed a posthumanist approach and considered how matter acts in an analysis of children’s play activities in natural environments. The findings demonstrated that in sensorimotor play, matter seems to talk more directly to children’s hands and bodies. In play activities with symbolic content, matter works both directly and through discourses; when objects are given symbolic meaning and in both kinds of play, discursive practices in peer groups are influential.

  • Carr, Victoria, and Eleanor Luken. 2014. Playscapes: A pedagogical paradigm for play and learning. International Journal of Play 3.1: 69–83.

    DOI: 10.1080/21594937.2013.871965

    This article discusses outdoor play in the United States, and specifically the play possibilities in a designed playscape with a focus on nature as an alternative to traditional playgrounds. This research indicated that children learn academic concepts, engage in physical activities, investigate scientific principles, and enhance their development in all domains through nature play. Early science and sustainability learning were also promoted.

  • Froebel, Fredrich. 1995. Människans fostran. Lund: Studentlitteratur.

    In this classic book (The Education of Man), first published in 1826, Froebel discusses childhood education. He also identifies the fundamental principles upon which he based his kindergarten system. Specifically, the benefits of nature as part of children’s development and learning are discussed.

  • Jickling, Bob, Sean Blenkinsop, Marcus Morse, and Aage Jensen. 2018. Wild pedagogies: Six initial touchstones for early childhood environmental educators. Australian Journal of Environmental Education 34.2: 159–171.

    DOI: 10.1017/aee.2018.19

    This article explores six main principles related to early childhood education, with a focus on environmental teaching: (1) agency and the role of nature as co-teacher; (2) wildness and challenging ideas of control; (3) complexity, the unknown, and spontaneity; (4) locating the wild; (5) time and practice; and (6) cultural change.

  • Sandseter Hansen, Ellen Beate, and Trond L. Hagen. 2016. Scandinavian early childhood education: Spending time in the outdoors. In Routledge International Handbook of Outdoor Studies. Edited by Barbara Humberstone, Heather Prince and Karla A Henderson, 95–102. London and New York: Routledge.

    This chapter presents an overview of outdoor play in early childhood education in Scandinavia (Denmark, Sweden, and Norway). Outdoor play is valued in all three countries as integral to children’s lives and childhood. This is founded in the beliefs of politicians, practitioners, and parents about the benefits of playing and learning in the physical world.

  • Taylor, Africa. 2017. Beyond stewardship: Common world pedagogies for the Anthropocene. Environmental Education Research 23.10: 1448–1461.

    DOI: 10.1080/13504622.2017.1325452

    The author discusses the implications of the Anthropocene and the need for a paradigm shift in thinking about what it means to be human and about our place and agency in the world. Also discussed is how a common worlds approach (e.g., stewardship pedagogies—learning “with” nonhuman others, rather than “about” them and “on their behalf”) offers an alternative more-than-human relational ontology, inextricably entangled with multiple life-worlds.

  • Waller, Tim. 2007. The trampoline tree and the swamp monster with 18 heads: Outdoor play in Foundation Stage and Foundation Phase. Education 3–13 35.4: 365–377.

    This seminal research paper investigated pedagogy and outdoor play with children aged three to seven years who regularly engaged with natural wild environments. The development and opportunities for children’s play themes and how these impacted on pedagogy in these early years settings were explored in discussion.

  • Waters, Jane. 2017. Affordance theory in outdoor play. In The SAGE handbook of outdoor play and learning. Edited by Tim Waller, Eva Ärlemalm-Hagsér, Ellen Beate Hansen Sandseter, Libby Lee-Hammond, Kirsti Lekies, and Shirley Wyver. London: SAGE.

    In this chapter, the author provides an understanding of “affordance” and how this theoretical concept has been embraced within the field of outdoor play and learning. In addition, it offers the reader a review of the origins and development of the “affordance” concept and consideration of its usefulness within the field. Also considered is how “affordance” as a concept within outdoor play and learning may be developed in the future.

  • Wattchow, Brian, and Mike Brown. 2011. A pedagogy of place: Outdoor education for a changing world. Clayton, Australia: Monash University Publishing.

    The authors scrutinize the underlying assumptions about outdoor education and stress alternative thinking. They offer a broad range of examples of current practices, responding to both local conditions and cultural traditions. They alert to also dealing with substantial social and ecological changes and the need for alternative thinking about outdoor education in a quickly changing world.

  • Wishart, Llewellyn, and Elizabeth Rouse. 2018. Pedagogies of outdoor spaces: An early childhood educator professional learning journey. Early Child Development and Care 189.14: 1–15.

    This article presents how teachers’ understandings and perceptions of natural play learning environments were transformed through a targeted professional learning (PL) project with a focus on the outdoor space. The authors share the story of three educators participating in targeted PL and show that the educators felt more confident in their understandings of the value and benefits of nature-rich outdoor environments to support young children’s active play outdoor.

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