The Importance of Outdoor Play

Picture of Calum


International Primary Teacher and Outdoor Learning Specialist, with over ten years experience. I hold an MSc in Outdoor Education and PGDE in Primary Education.

Throughout my career as a teacher, I’ve mainly worked with KS2 children, but in my new role, I’ve been enjoying my KS1 and early years classes. They’ve given me the chance to observe many fantastic examples of play in the early years and KS1 departments, which has inspired me to introduce more free play opportunities into my outdoor learning facilitation. I’m starting to feel more confident when helping facilitate children’s play, and I am still learning how to best support children.

However, this reflection has led me to question the way we limit opportunities for free play for older children. At what stage in children’s educational journey does free play decrease? Isn’t it just as important for the KS2 children to be given significant opportunities to engage in free play?

On trips to natural environments with KS2 children, I have occasionally felt uneasy with giving the children time for free play, as I feel that some of the parent helpers may not see the educational benefit for the children at their level. However, I often see the older children mirroring the younger children’s play by picking up natural materials and using them as props or building and finding dens. I therefore believe that it is equally important for them to be given this opportunity.

As part of my personal development journey, I want to become a better facilitator of play. I have done a little research into the benefits of playing in outdoor natural environments to inform my practice, and this is what I have discovered. I hope you enjoy this blog.


Having fun in the mud kitchen.


Playing in Natural Environments

Knight (2013) states, ‘Play allows children to understand the qualities and properties of the world’ (p. 98). By playing in an authentic outdoor environment, children can play with materials and observe the features of the landscapes around them. As children initially learn heavily through using their senses, discovering and playing in outdoor environments offers children rich sensory learning experiences (Duffy, 2007). When playing, children also inhabit their environment and make it their own. Therefore, natural places are attractive play areas for children, as they find them flexible, unlike playground equipment, which is designed with specific games and movements in mind. Natural environments offer children an environment they can manipulate, discover and control (Fasting, 2019). I have often observed children collecting leaves and sticks and using them as tools for imaginative play. I also see children choosing areas for play and making them their own.


Learner developing confidence by balancing on a tree log.


Physical Development

The environment on its own aids the student’s physical development during sessions. Outdoor environments can contain uneven and variable terrain that helps to develop the students’ balance and physical fitness (Fjortoft, 2004). This, combined with free play opportunities, encourages the development of fine and gross motor skills and helps an individual’s physical development and well-being ( Blackwell, 2015).


The early Years team is so organised with their outdoor play resources.


Sometimes it is nice to get the pencils and paper out as a free choice activity.


Principles of Play

Quality play experiences are built on principles that include free choice, self-directed learning, learner motivation, social interaction, and allowing children to challenge themselves and take risks (Duffy, 2007). Children often repeat games and play patterns, allowing them to develop physical and cognitive skills over time (Santer and Griffith, 2007).

Fasting (2019) states that ‘nature environments allow children to be the authors of their investigations and play—the architects of their own body and brain’ (p.7). Outdoor learning play experiences are most effective when self-directed, allowing children to be inspired by their places of play while giving them a choice to set the narrative for their games and interactions. and discover their learning motivation (Duffy, 2007). Some children may be interested in flora and fauna; others may focus on the social aspects of a game or the physical task they engage in.


Learners use the playground as a setting for their free play.


As an educator, my role in play is to engage with the children to help them process their learning and provide equipment and tools to fit into individual learning narratives. I often witness the early years teachers asking children open questions about their play, and I feel that this is a skill I need to develop. Understanding how to talk to young children at a level they understand and developing a knowledge of the individuals you teach is important, as children will each respond differently to the educator’s approach.

It is important to be empathetic and support children in their play. Open questions facilitate further learning by encouraging the development of children’s communication skills and fostering a deeper understanding of their learning by talking through activities, explaining rules, and reflecting on their experiences. There may also be opportunities to prompt mathematical skills through counting and identifying shapes. In lesson planning, an educator can allow for the children’s impulse to play, and learning goals can be implemented through play and exploration of their play (Santer and Griffith, 2007).


Learner enjoys playing with natural materials.


An educator can also support children as they challenge themselves and take risks with their play. Offering learning environments where they can take risks and experiment allows children to be adaptable and find solutions to different challenges (Duffy, 2007). When children change their strategies to incorporate new information, it aids their cognitive development.

Play is a powerful tool for developing a child’s social and emotional well-being. When partaking in play, children demonstrate their feelings and inner needs, develop their sense of who they are, solve problems and deal with conflicts. Play helps build social and communication skills. Play can also offer powerful tools to help soothe children’s trauma or issues with their own lives that they struggle with (Santer and Griffith, 2007). Free play in nature allows children to learn the rules of society and build relationships and, consequently, their self-esteem (Knight, 2013).

Since becoming an Outdoor Learning specialist, I’ve developed a growing appreciation of the importance of play, and I will be looking to engage with play practitioners to further my knowledge.

I hope you have enjoyed my post, and please get in touch to discuss facilitating outdoor play in natural environments.


Related Blog

Helping Childrens’ Wellbeing with Outdoor Learning


Reference List

Blackwell, S. (2015). Impacts of long-term forest school programmes on children’s resilience, confidence and wellbeing. Acesso em, 30(04), 1-46. 

Duffy, B. (2007). All about… messy play. United Kingdom: Crown. 

Fasting, M. L. (2019). Playing outdoors. Scandinavian University Press.

Fjortoft, I. (2004). Landscape as playscape: The effects of natural environments on children’s play and motor development. Child Youth Environments, 14(2), 21–44.

Knight, S. (2013). Forest school and outdoor learning in the early years. Sage.

Santer, J. and Griffiths, C. (2007). Free play in early childhood: A literature review. National Children’s Bureau.