Information: outdoor play

Information on the theory and practice of outdoor play – from case studies to policies, examples of forms, documents & handouts, research and articles, and much more to support your theoretical explorations into the outdoors.

With your help the information section can grow – can you recommend sample policies, signpost articles or videos, share documents or resources? Please contribute so we can build the knowledge and good practice of all people working with groups outdoors. Contact us via share@muddyfaces.co.uk

Reports, articles, research etc are, as much as possible, arranged in chronological order, most recent at the top.

Child-led play

At Muddy Faces we feel it is vitally important to consider a learner-led approach when making activities available to your groups.

We asked Jan White, internationally-recognised consultant and speaker for outdoor provision in the early years, to explain.


Why is child-led play important?

“Research in children’s education makes it clear that learning that is satisfying, rewarding and effective occurs when the child is deeply engaged and involved – and that this happens when the learner is strongly motivated by the experience, because it is relevant and matters to them at that moment.

Children’s enormous curiosity and drive to explore, discover and come to know their world is innate and natural – it has been coded into us biologically through evolution so that we can survive and thrive in a continually changing world. This means that children are driven intuitively to do what is needed to develop well, and to interact and experiment with the things, stuff and people that are in their world.

Children therefore have a strong need to interact with and come to make sense of what is in the world, how the world works and how they fit into it, and are especially hard-wired to be interested in natural processes and how nature works. By trusting each child’s own agenda – what they want to do, feel or be in this particular moment – we support them to find out about what they are naturally drawn to, investigate what they are really interested in, and follow this line of enquiry to their satisfaction.

Evolution has also crafted children to learn through playing with their world. In playful interactions with no set outcome, things, people and forces can be messed about with, moved, modified, recombined and fully explored. The questioning, creativity, critical thinking and problem solving that this child-driven approach to finding out develops so well, have been identified as vital dispositions and skill sets for the economy and employment in the 21st century.

Trusting child-driven, play-filled activity enables every child to be the highly-motivated self-directed learner that they are designed to be.

Planning for possibilities and the place of ‘activities’

Enabling child-initiated and child-led play requires a rich and open environment, filled with possibilities that are appropriate to the children’s level of development and range of likely interests, and this comes from both knowing about children in general and knowing each individual child well.

Within such an environment, adult-initiated activities are likely to be of interest when they match what a child is currently interested in and driven to learn more about. Successful introduction of activities therefore needs alert adults who are attuned to this child and tuned into what is currently motivating them, so that a relevant activity can be offered.

In this context, specific activities can be used in two effective ways: firstly to respond to and provide further opportunity for the child to investigate and play with their demonstrated interest(s); and secondly to ‘seed’ new ideas – to offer provocations that give the child wider experiences, spark new thoughts and present additional ways to follow their interest. Children are usually drawn by what others show energy for, and such interest can be contagious, so that one child’s involvement draws and inspires others.

Activities that are flexible and open to being used in several ways are more playful and interesting, and therefore have much more value for children’s learning. A combination of simplicity with versatility (which nature is so good at) allows the child to take the activity in multiple directions, playing with it beyond the obvious or expected. However, flexibility in the supporting adult is also required – enjoying surprise and finding pleasure in what children do with the ideas we offer!

Plenty of non-directed time is also critical to success. Time-limited activities can suffer from a focus on product over process – the glue may well be far more interesting than the item being made! So, factor in lots of uninterrupted time, be prepared for a child to take the activity in entirely new directions, and leave the possibility for children to return to it at a later time to carry on investigating and experimenting. If the opportunity fits with their interests, they will probably come back to it when the time is right for them.”


Further reading

White, J. (2014), Playing and Learning Outdoors: making provision for high quality experiences in the outdoor environment with children 3-7 (Routledge)

Woods, A. (Ed.) (2013), Child Initiated Play and Learning: planning for possibilities in the early years (David Fulton)


About Jan White

Working across the UK and internationally, Jan is a leading thinker and writer on outdoor play, advocate for high quality outdoor provision for services for children from birth to seven and founder/strategic director of Early Childhood Outdoors, the National Centre for Play, Learning and Wellbeing Outdoors. With over thirty years’ experience in education, including working with Learning Through Landscapes and Early Excellence to develop national support for early years’ outdoor provision, and as an Associate Lecturer at Sheffield Hallam and Birmingham City Universities (CREC), she has developed a deep commitment to the consistently powerful effect of the outdoors on young children. She is currently an Associate with Early Education, convenor of the Landscapes for Early Childhood national network, and provides training courses, conference keynotes and consultancy for a wide range of early years settings. With a childhood love of rocks and soil, leading to a degree in Soil Science, a masters in Ecology and post-graduate teaching certificate in Science and Outdoor Education, she realises that she has always been, at heart, a committed mudologist!

Jan is award-winning author of Playing and Learning Outdoors: making provision for high quality experiences in the outdoor environment with children 3-7 (Routledge 2014), Making a Mud Kitchen (Muddy Faces 2012) and Every Child a Mover (Early Education 2016), editor of Outdoor Provision in the Early Years (Sage 2011), and collaborated with Siren Films to make the award-winning training DVDs Babies Outdoors, Toddlers Outdoors and Two Year-olds Outdoors (Siren Films 2011).

In 2018 Jan was made an honorary Professor of Practice by the University of Wales Trinity St David (UWTSD). Read an interview with her about it here.

Jan’s website is janwhitenaturalplay.wordpress.com

Inspired by Richard Louv’s work on Nature Deficit Disorder, Dr Zarr is the founder and medical director of Park Rx America, a nonprofit that encourages doctors to prescribe parks, based on the expanding scientific literature that shows that spending time outdoors is good for physical and mental health. New York Times (US), 16 July 2018.


Parents encouraged to let their children explore the great outdoors

A charity is ‘calling for a new drive to encourage parents to get their children playing outdoors. Dr Catherine Calderwood, Scotland’s chief medical officer, said the benefits of outdoor learning, exercise and play were well documented….’ The Herald, 24 February 2018.


Last Treehouse in the Woods

“In his book “Last Child in the Woods,” Richard Louv wrote about the criminalization of nature play. He wrote about a civic association that would spend much of their time & resources hunting through the forests in an effort to try to catch children in the act of building a treehouse. In the eyes of the association, the kids had to be stopped.” This article is written by one of those kids, now grown up. Children & Nature Network, 22 February 2018.


4 myths debunked about outdoor play and children’s health

‘Enough with the old wives’ tales that have kept kids indoors long enough! It’s time to fight back with facts.’ Treehugger, 1 December 2016.


Nature & discovery
Outdoor play

Selection of articles on the importance of nature activities for little ones, and the joys and benefits of outdoor play. Both from Community Playthings, c2015.


Community Playthings UK Logo

Children Must Engage in Active Play for Optimal Brain Function

“Children must engage in active play for optimal brain function… A new study shows the brain-body connection is stronger than many people realized.” Guardian Liberty Voice, 30 September 2014.


What is Nature Play?

Webpage looking at nature play, why it is important, the challenges to doing it (and to not doing it) (to people and the environment) and how to bring it back. On Green Hearts (US) – an excellent resource, no longer active, but left online for its useful content. Also:

A Parents Guide to Nature Play

A free-to-download pdf: ‘In 20 concise pages you can learn about what makes great nature play, why it is important, and how you can restore it to your children’s daily lives.’ Both c2014.


77 Reasons Kids Need Playgrounds

Comprehensive list of research & quotations covering areas including health benefits, emotional & physical skill development, learning & fun.  AAA State of Play (US), c2014.


But… Isn’t It Dangerous? Risk & Reward in Nature Play

Useful & referenced article looking at the concept of comparative risk, the importance of risk, and how nature play can play a part. Ecology (US), 17 July 2012


What can we learn from climbing trees?

Interview with a professional tree-climber looking at the benefits and risks of tree climbing and why it seems to be in decline. BBC News Magazine, 22 April 2008.


Wild Child: 33 Evergreen Benefits of Outdoor Play

‘A collection of quotes & research on nature’s role in child development.’ Inspirational infographic on the benefits of nature on health and wellbeing. AAA State of Play (US).


Screenshot of Wild Child Infographic

Exercising Muscles and Minds, by Marjorie Ouvry

Full of good practice case studies, with lots of ideas for activities, equipment and resources, this is a comprehensive guide to planning for learning outside throughout the year, focusing on outdoor play with three to five-year-olds. Available from Muddy Faces.


Exercising Muscles And Minds book cover

Outdoor Learning in the Early Years, by Helen Bilton

The complete guide to creating effective outdoor environments for young children’s learning. Includes: how to manage and set up the outdoor area; what children gain from being outside; how to allow children to take managed risks; research supporting the outdoor approach, plus a multitude of ideas and activities for working outdoors in the early years. Available from Muddy Faces.


Outdoor Learning In The Early Years book cover

Playing and Learning Outdoors, by Jan White

Get the very best from outdoor playing and learning for children from ages three to five years. Develop rich and stimulating outdoor play provision in Early Years settings. Achievable advice and support, based on approaches which are appropriate and effective for young children’s all-round well-being and development. Available from Muddy Faces. 


book cover for Playing And Learning Outdoors

Teacher Tom’s First Book, by Tom Hobson

This book encapsulates, in stories from the classroom, what makes Teacher Tom’s democratic play-based curriculum such a powerful way for young children to learn life’s most important lessons. Available from Muddy Faces. 


Teacher Toms First Book

Good from Woods case studies

15 case studies looking at wellbeing benefits of woodland activities, with a range of activities, in various outdoor settings, with children, young people and adults with learning difficulties.


Natural play stories

Looking at 2 nature preschools in the US – addressing benefits, issues and learning. From Earthplay.


Muddy Faces case studies

The work carried out at different settings, on a day-to-day basis, can be fascinating. Here are some examples of mud play, mud kitchens and Mud Day events in action.

For more mud stuff, including our free mud book, mud articles & resources visit our Mud page.


Mud Day at Tighnabruaich Primary School in Scotland

The rewards of involving children in planning – plus lessons learned for future mud events.


children in waterproofs paddling in the mud

Mud Day celebrations at a woodland playgroup, Staffs

A woodland play setting, with an established mud kitchen, finds other ways to celebrate & suggests some things to think about.


a woman and 2 kids using their hands to paint mud onto a sheet

Mud Day celebrations at multiple venues in Bradford

Communication and compromise can lead to a successful mud event bringing together a range of settings.


3 boys covered in mud

Mud kitchen & digging patch at a kindergarten in Australia

Redevelopment of the whole site was the perfect time to create these excellent mud resources, with donated time & kit.


Mud kitchen & loose parts in a preschool garden in Wiltshire

A mud kitchen, combined with access to nature, a veg patch, and plenty of loose parts, greatly enhances opportunities.


a veg garden

Mud kitchen at Ashton Keynes Preschool, Wiltshire

With inspiration & the confidence to ask for support & donations, setting up a mud kitchen can be simple to do.


child pouring water from a kettle into a bowl

Mud patch at a primary school in NI

Creating and maintaining a muddy digging patch was a priority at this newly-built primary school.


two children in waterproofs, one sitting in the middle of a mud pit

Mud play opportunities with an independent childminder

Clothes will get muddy – if parents know what to expect they can bring what is needed.


water puring from a drainpipe into a teapot

Inclusive Play Design Guide

‘An inclusive playground accommodates everyone & challenges them at their own developmental level. This guide was developed … as an inspirational & educational resource to help create great outdoor play environments for everyone. It offers a set of strategies & solutions to the challenges that face communities in their journey to inclusive play.’ Playworld, 2015 (US), on Accessible Playground.


Inclusive Play Design Guide cover, with a boy with a prosthetic leg sliding down a blue slide

Interesting backyards make the best playgrounds

Blog post with ‘some ideas on how to create a backyard that is more child-friendly and conducive to creative play’. With a look at loose parts, mud, water and more. Treehugger, 11 September 2015.


Affordable Settings and Elements

Ideas for Cost Effective Solutions. Info sheet which ‘provides examples of how creative problem solving and resourcefulness can provide cost effective ways to enrich early childhood outdoor spaces.’ Some lovely examples of outdoor spaces enhanced with natural materials. From the Natural Learning Initiative (US), January 2012 (pdf).

See also: Adding Value to Early Childhood Outdoor Play and Learning Environments: The Top Ten Activity Settings (pdf).


Nature and Young Children, by Ruth Wilson

Encouraging Creative Play and Learning in Natural Environments. ‘How to set up indoor & outdoor nature play spaces as well as encouraging environmentally responsible attitudes, values & behaviour in your early childhood setting … a wealth of ideas on how to foster creative play & learning in nature-focused environments while also promoting positive connections with nature.’ 2012.


cover of book - Nature And Young Children

Nature Play: bringing the ‘wild’ back to the child

Report exploring natural playscapes and the benefits of nature play, including 5 steps for designing a nature playspace, and case studies of projects that have successfully done it. The Wild Child, 2012 (pdf).


Nature Play report cover

Design Principles for Nature Play Spaces

in Nature Centers and Other Natural Areas. “… a set of principles and practices to guide our work. These are not scientifically proven, absolute, or etched in stone. Rather, they represent Green Hearts’ best judgement and analysis, based on our experience. We share them here to help (you) think through core principles and key design issues for spaces intended to recreate the wonderful, nature-based play that so many of us enjoyed during our youth.” 2009 (pdf).


Reimagining outdoor learning spaces

Primary capital, co-design and educational transformation. ‘This handbook focuses on the use and utility of outdoor space for play and learning, and aims to support those thinking about redesigning their outdoor spaces.’ A Futurelab handbook, on NFER, January 2008.


Reimagining Outdoor Learning Spaces report cover

Earthplay outdoor design case studies

9 case studies looking at the transformation of play spaces in schools, kindergartens and pubic parks in Berlin, Germany. Each case study focuses on a different theme: choice, risk & challenge, Nature with a capital N, play machines, sand, shade & setting, topography, variety & texture, and water.


Five nearly free do-it-yourself playscape projects

“Here are five simple projects to start you on your way toward a multi-sensory natural playscape. They’re not difficult or complex. They just take a little bit of creativity and time. Alter them to suit your own needs and licensing requirements. Do you have any parents who could help you? Spirited staff? Don’t forget to include children in the process.” From Earthplay.


The Good School Playground Guide

Inspiration for creating spaces which stimulate physical activity and meet children’s developmental needs to explore, create, collaborate, socialise and simply ‘be’.
Contents: Designing for play; Playground placemaking; A word about risk; Design for learning; Nature; Growing; Making it happen. From SEED.


Good School Playground Guide cover shot

The Green Desk

‘A resource for early childhood educators, childcare providers, administrators, and professionals seeking the latest information to create high quality, healthy outdoor environments for young children.’ Natural Learning Initiative.
See also NTL’s research section – ‘research of children’s outdoor environments to generate new knowledge that may support evidence-based design’, and infosheets which ‘highlight specific aspects of landscape design or design programming.’


A Guide To Inclusive Playground Design
A Guide to Natural Playgrounds
How-To Accommodate Special Needs Children on the Playground
Sensory Playground Equipment

‘Inclusive play is the creation of environments for play that serve sensory, physical, cognitive, social, and emotional needs of all children in a community, regardless of ability.’ AAA State of Play (US).


Kaboom: Build a Playground Toolkit

‘Designed to walk you through the process of how to create a community-build playspace. From fundraising to volunteer recruitment, the Toolkit can help you take your project from start to finish with over a decade’s worth of KaBOOM! knowledge, advice, and best practices in building playspaces.’ Also:

Kaboom: DIY enhancement projects

‘Step-by-step instructions to transform the area around a playspace into an inviting place for your community’ – including instructions for building stages, benches, planters, fences, picnic tables, bins, and tons more – a great resource!


Projects to Encourage Outdoor Play & Learning

Great resource! ‘Learn to create engaging outdoor learning and play environments to improve student health and reconnect children with nature.’ Includes a complete guide to Create a Nature Play Area and Outdoor Classrooms, Labs & Habitats. From Bay Backpack.


Den & shelter building

Our most complete guide to indoor and woodland den building.
Free to download, created by Muddy Faces. An excellent (though we say so ourselves!) and extensive practical guide to indoor and woodland den building.

Den & Shelter Building Cover

Contents include • what is a den? • benefits of den building & impact on development • moving the indoor outside • facilitating den building • building dens in a wild or woodland area • den building resources • building dens at your setting with limited natural resources • construction ideas – tarpaulin shelter – classic tent shape – tipi & other ideas • external links & final word.


Den building

A shortened (but still extensive) version of the full den guide, as featured in one of our wonderful Muddy Faces newsletters. Contents include • the benefits of den building: how den building is an essential part of a child’s development! • risk: the balance between exposure to risk and preventing harm • moving the indoors outside – easy den building using everyday objects • woodland dens & shelters: examples • erecting a tarpaulin shelter in woodland • dens & development.


Den Building cover

Den Day: Friday 16 June

‘Build dens, learn about the importance of shelter and raise money to change lives.’ Signup for free fundraising kit, including den building tips. From Save the Children.


Den Day Logo

The #NatureForAll Playbook: an Action Guide for Inspiring Love of Nature

Designed to inspire action, with strategies and ‘plays’ – simple nature connection activities – and case studies of organisations having a go. Hard to describe, this is worth taking a look at to kickstart or boost what you already do. From IUCN Commission on Education and Communication (CEC) and Canadian Parks Council (CPC), 2017 (pdf).


#NatureForAll Playbook cover

Nature Play

Nurturing Children and Strengthening Conservation through Connections to the Land
Part 1: A Primer on Nature Play and Its Importance – exploring the essential characteristics of nature play, its benefits & barriers. Part 2: Restoring Nature Play –  real actions to undertake including advice on creating nature play spaces & playscapes, creating understanding amongst stakeholders, developing & planning programmes, activities & more. The appendix includes a discussion on risk. Greenhearts (US), c2015 (pdf).


Nature Play report cover with illustration of two children climbing trees

A Parents’ Guide to Nature Play

‘Learn about what makes great nature play, why it is important, and how you can restore it to your children’s daily lives.’ Greenhearts (US), 2009 (pdf).


A Parents Guide To Nature Play - cover illustration of a child chasing a butterfly

Outdoor Play

Take a risk, go play outside! ‘An online tool to help parents and caregivers gain the confidence to allow their kids to engage in more outdoor play.’ With sections on – What is Risky Play? and Why is Risky Play Important? Followed by a guided journey to put yourself in your child’s, and other parents, shoes, to build an action plan for change.


Outside Play Website

Links

Our outdoor play links page signposts you to the main national bodies, key organisations, initiatives and websites in the world of play outdoors.

Have a browse – there are tons of links to loads of interesting, important & inspiring organisations!


Theory of loose parts

The original paper by Simon Nicholson, written in the 1970s. On Studies in Design Education Craft & Technology.


Theory of loose parts: summary

One page summary of the theory of loose parts and what they should be. On Reading Play.


Loose Parts Play Toolkit

Brilliant free 72-page pdf on the value of loose parts to children’s play, providing practical guidance to those who work with children and young people of all ages. By Theresa Casey & Juliet Robertson, produced by the Scottish Government in partnership with Inspiring Scotland.


Learning Piles

Fun blog post from Teacher Tom considering how loose parts often end up all in a pile. 7 December 2015.


Articles on loose parts

loose parts: what does this mean? Ideas for adding and using loose parts for activities in a child care program, from Penn State Extension, 2016
the value of loose parts and the learning in loose parts. Both from Community Playthings, 2015
the theory of loose parts – addressing creativity, from An Every Day Story, 5 March 2013
theory of loose parts – the what, why and how, from Let the Children Play, 10 February 2010.


Mud Day letters & posters

We’ve developed these simple resources to save you time when organising a Mud Kitchen or International Mud Day event. You may freely use and adapt them to suit your setting but please do credit us: www.muddyfaces.co.uk. Thank you.

Lots more about mud on our Mud page.

Click to download:

International Mud Day logo

Den Day: Friday 16 June

‘Build dens, learn about the importance of shelter and raise money to change lives.’ Signup for free fundraising kit, including den building tips. From Save the Children.


Den Day Logo

International Mud Day: 29 June

Celebrating glorious mud!


International Mud Day logo

Play Day: first Wednesday in August

As well as a celebration of children’s right to play, Play Day is a campaign that highlights the importance of play in children’s lives. Resources available to run your own event.


Play Day Logo

Play: a report by the all-party parliamentary group on a fit and healthy childhood

‘The recommendations within (this report) contribute to our vision of ‘whole child’ health and wellbeing.’ Includes a chapter on outdoor & indoor play, and the health benefits of play. October 2015.


Play Report Cover

Position Statement on Active Outdoor Play (Canada)

‘A diverse, cross-sectorial group of partners, stakeholders and researchers, collaborated to develop an evidence-informed Position Statement on active outdoor play for children aged 3–12 years.’
It states “Access to active play in nature and outdoors—with its risks— is essential for healthy child development. We recommend increasing children’s opportunities for self-directed play outdoors in all settings—at home, at school, in child care, the community and nature.” International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health, 8 June 2015.


Well-being benefits of play at Fort Apache, Torbay

Research focus: to find out more about any wellbeing benefits gained by the children and young people from their play in Fort Apache and which aspects facilitate this wellbeing. It also looked at how best to carry out ongoing action-research in an open and accessible play woodland site such as Fort Apache.’ Part of the Good From Woods Project, 2013.


Risk-benefit assesments

A range of documents by different authors offering an introduction to the concept of risk-benefit assessments, plus some templates for assessments, with a particular focus on mud kitchens.

The templates are working documents, offering you ideas rather than finished assessments. This is to ensure that the author of the assessments fully interacts with their own processes, and any assessment created is relevant to your specific setting.

These documents are a guide to support your own health and safety procedures and are not designed to be complete in any way.

For more mud stuff, including our free mud book, mud articles & resources visit our Mud page.


Click to download:

Earthplay videos

A selection of videos on mud, play area design, adventure & woodland play, and more.


Community Playthings: sand & water play

A selection of referenced articles on the benefits of sand, water & mud play and how to go about setting something up yourself.


Community Playthings UK Logo