In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Outdoor Play and Learning

  • Introduction
  • Outdoor Play Settings
  • Beyond Early Childhood

Education Outdoor Play and Learning
Alun Morgan
  • LAST REVIEWED: 21 February 2023
  • LAST MODIFIED: 21 February 2023
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199756810-0299


Play in outdoor contexts is an important yet contentious theme in contemporary educational and developmental discourse. The prevailing contemporary structures, practices, and pedagogies of the Western model of formal schooling, which has been exported worldwide, sees ‘play’ and/or being ‘outdoors’ as trivial distractions, or occasional releases from, the real serious ‘work’ of education that occurs in the proper learning setting, namely ‘indoors’ at desks in classrooms. In contrast, many scholars critique this hegemonic model, advocating instead outdoor learning and/or play as more appropriate for proper human flourishing in terms of learning and health and well-being (both physical and mental). Furthermore, an additional association in terms of this flourishing, whether explicitly or implicitly, is often made between the efficacy of outdoor places that are more ‘natural’ vis-à-vis those that are less so (i.e., human-made or ‘built environments’). Hence there is something of a countervailing emerging orthodoxy emphasizing strong associations between play-outdoors-nature and children or youth. Such thinking has been a recurring leitmotif in the history of educational theory, particularly since the 18th century with Romantic ideas on children and humanity following Rousseau. This has represented an influential yet marginal position historically, but one which has become more mainstreamed in recent years. More recent scholarship has sought to move from earlier speculative and philosophical thinking to provide more empirical and ‘scientific’ justification drawing on fields such as psychology (including sub-branches of environmental, evolutionary, and developmental); ethnography; sociology; and human geography (notably the new field of children’s and young people’s geographies). There have also been attempts to extend the application beyond childhood and youth toward a more inclusive and lifelong orientation (i.e., being playful outdoors, particularly in natural settings, being efficacious for all people). This bibliography attempts to provide a range of resources germane to this emerging orthodoxy, which relate to ‘terms of reference’ (e.g., what is actually meant by ‘play’?) and characteristics and typologies (e.g., types of play, or outdoor spaces). However, still more recent scholarship has cast a more critical eye even over this emerging orthodoxy, seeing it as continuing to be principally informed by (Western) modern modes of thinking which tend to generate binary categorical disassociations between nature-human/culture, natural/urban, children/adults, and work/play. Such scholarship is associated with posthuman and feminist scholarship that advocates more relational perspectives, which are providing an important additional critical dimension to these debates noted in this bibliography.

General Overviews

The associations between the various aspects of outdoors/learning/nature/children/play are addressed in a variety of sources in a variety of ways. Different traditions of scholarship—for example environmental psychology, early years and primary education, outdoor and experiential learning, and environmental and sustainability education—have alighted on broadly similar treatments and conclusions, albeit from different starting points, and can be seen to drawn on similar philosophical and theoretical sources. There is arguably, therefore, an apparent commonality emerging across these different traditions that has generated an emerging orthodoxy of sorts. Typically, justification is provided on theoretical and practical terms for holistic human development—namely intellectual, skills, attitudes, and values—but also physical and mental well-being. Also justification is presented in terms of personal and social development and broader social goals such as convivial and proenvironmental active citizens and sustainability. However, while often covering similar ‘common ground,’ there are also distinctions across the literature, with different traditions tending to foreground one or more aspect (outdoors vis-à-vis play vis-à-vis nature) and/or educational context or phase (early years vis-à-vis older ages) while sometimes, but not always, touching on the other aspects. It is helpful, therefore, to structure what follows into thematic subsections. However, in the spirit of posthumanist thinking, it is better to see the different thematic sections as interrelated in a rhizomatic and lateral logic mutually informing one another.

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