‘Get some fresh air’ – The importance of outdoor play

This week’s blog is written by Charlotte Hanks a final year Early Childhood Studies student.


Forest school placement (permission granted by forest school


Recently I have been reading ‘Swallows and Amazons’ by Ransome (1930).      I can’t help but think how lovely it is to read about the adventures these children have sailing and camping on an island with no adults around. However, I also think ‘would I let children in my care do this?’ honestly, I don’t think I would. I believe this attitude to be a result of the growing fears around safety (Moyles, 2012), not just ‘stranger danger’ but also the fear of potential injuries (Brussoni, 2017). There is a need for children to interact with nature and many have mentioned the benefits it has on children’s development (Henley, 2010). Ben Kastly (TEDx Talks, 2014) refers to nature as being a remedy, due to playing outside aiding mental health and happiness (Moyles, 2012). Fundamentally, it is the child’s right to play as stated in Article 31 of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child [UNCRC] (1989). This is important to remember as sometimes we can forget this and stop children from playing due to the business of everyday life.

Why is play important? – Play itself, in all forms, is important for young children as it allows them to learn about themselves, their cultural, and the social and physical environment (Wilson, 2008). Playing also aids their holistic development (Armstong, 2006, cited in Ernst, 2017; Howard, 2014). The importance of play is highlighted in the Early Years Foundation stage (Department for Education, 2017) mentioning how it is “essential for children’s development” as it builds their confidence through exploration and problem solving. Additionally, Longfield and Grey-Thompson (2018) mention how play benefits children’s health and wellbeing. I would argue that these benefits are enhanced through outdoor play as it allows for more opportunities to play in a way that aids all areas of development. A study (LEGO Learning Institute, 2002) showed that 97% of parents in the UK agreed, either strongly or slightly, that play also meant learning. However, when looking at what parents classed as play, 55% saw watching TV or videos as play. Despite this being considered as true and the potential learning benefits, I would argue children do not learn as much, or in the same beneficial way, as outdoor play. When children play outside, they experience new situations that require negotiating and listening skills (Harris, 2017). This can be something simple such as discussing how to get around or over a fallen tree, or the best way to stop water flow.

What’s your view of play? –  When we talk about play, we all have different ideas of what this means, some more complex than others. These different views and interpretations of play have been influenced by our culture, values, gender, economic factors, relation to the natural world, and our childhood (Whitebread, 2012). For me my childhood is a massive contributor to how I view play. Growing up on a farm I had the freedom to walk out the front door and explore as far as the fields and woods allowed me. Having this freedom and connection to the natural world has made me greatly value the importance of outdoor play. This has caused me to value play that involves a sense of discovery and risk taking. Bruce (2001), Whitebread (2012), and Rogers (2016) provide multiple types and features of play if you wish to explore the concept of play yourself and come to your own view of what play is.

What is outdoor play?-  When children play outdoors it can be anything from the local park to walking around the woods, or even going to the beach. However, I do believe that parks and playgrounds not only restrict children to one area but also in the way they play and the language that comes with this. One child from the ‘Playing Out’ report (Longfield and Grey-Thompson, 2018, p.7) mentioned how “There isn’t enough variety”.  In contrast to playgrounds, the natural outdoor area offers an unlimited space that is forever changing, allowing for a diverse use of imagination and creativity (Moyles, 2012). This changing environment also allows for different risk-taking opportunities (Ernst, 2017) that offer a wider use of language and possibilities to learn and experiment with language. Outdoor play allows for development in all areas; physically, cognitively, emotionally, and socially (Mainella, Agate and Clark, 2011). Physically, they are able to use all their muscles and develop both gross and fine motor skills; cognitively, they problem solve; emotionally they build up resilience and determination, and socially, they work together to overcome barriers or simply through playing together.

How does play link to language learning? – Play and language seem to go hand in hand and can be argued that this is what separates our play from the play of mammals. As humans, symbolic playdepends upon the symbolic abilities we have, such as language (Whitebread, 2012). Play essentially needs language, whether this be verbal or non-verbal, through narratives or simply through talking about the process of play (Howard, 2014). Children learn language in various ways. Chomsky’s theory was the idea of Language Acquisition Device which we are all born with to organise the language we hear (BBC Radio 4, 2015). Bruner developed this idea saying how it requires a trigger, that being children need to be spoken to first in order to learn language. If we take this theory, as adults, sometimes we need to be this ‘trigger’ to aid children’s language learning through play. When children play outside this ‘trigger’ can come from the adult to the child, or one child to another. Additionally, Bruce (2001) links language with play and culture. She suggests language is different for each culture and children learn specific cultural language by experimenting with it though play, where they create or experiment with words. Children can show language learning outside in this way by either creating and experimenting with words to describe the area they are in, verbalising how they feel about the space, or describe what their surroundings looks like or remind them of. Additionally, children can learn language through stimulus and response. This involves the child experimenting with language and the adult correcting the child’s language, so they learn the correct wording or praising the child, so they know they have said it correctly (Cameron-Faulkner, 2014). I would argue that in both cases the adult is the more knowledgeable other and scaffolds the child (Corsaro, 2005; McLeod, 2018).

Forest schools are an excellent example of how being outside aids children’s learning and combats against this decline in outdoor play (Coates and Pimlott-Wilson, 2018). The pedagogy they use, as adopted from Scandinavia and influenced by Froebel (Joyce, 2012), is a great illustration of how outdoor play impacts children’s development and aids their language learning. Having worked in a Forest School, I have seen just how much the children are eager to learn and explore in the outdoor space provided by forest schools. Harwood and Collier (2017) provide a lovely document showing how something as simple as a stick can be used in so many ways. One example they mention involves a stick that has a “pronounced ‘y’” at the end. This description shows how natural resources can be used to aid children’s language as this could quite nicely be turned into an activity where children have to find all the letters of the alphabet in sticks or to create each letter using the natural resources they find. This not only helps their observational skills but also language as they discuss how to create each letter and learn words associated to that letter. This also offers opportunities to learn to negotiate and explain to others what they think is the best way of doing things and why. This allows children to learn how to use language effectively (Longfield and Grey-Thompson, 2018). Additionally, a participant in the researched conducted by Mashall and Lewis (2014, p.343) mentioned the outside space as being particularly important in developing speech and language skills. These language skills are developed through the challenges, teamwork, negotiation, creative thinking, analysis of situations and problem solving that comes from outdoor play (Harris, 2017).

What is the adult’s role in children’s play? – The main role of the adult, that being parent, carer or teacher, is to support children’s play and encourage it by being sensitive to their needs and not dominating the play by imposing goals and outcomes into it (Synodi, 2010; Howard, 2014). However, it can be viewed that having goals in play is more enriching for children as the adult essentially teaches the child how to play (Fleer, 2015). With regards to outdoor play, this view of the adult’s role seems to be relatable in the sense that we should teach children an appreciation for the beauty of the natural world they explore (Thornton and Brunton, 2015). With outdoor play adults should also teach, and reassure, children that it is okay to play outside and take risks (Quetteville, 2009). Adults should also ensure that the environment in which the child plays allows for independent exploration and discovery (Thornton and Brunton, 2015). This can be achieved by allowing children to play outside with little adult guidance so that the children can play freely. This view can be argued to see adults as organisers of children’s play who ensure the child has opportunities to play (Synodi, 2010) by providing them with the environment to do so. Having the adult’s role as an organiser of play can be seen in a negative way and be argued to be adopting an adult-initiated approach rather than child-initiated. Despite this, sometimes adults need to initiate outdoor play to ensure children spend time outside and reap the benefits of this. Once the child is outside playing then adults can take a step back and allow the child to play independently. Overall, as mentioned before, adults need to encourage children to play which sometimes means being an organiser of play (Synodi, 2010) or even joining in and co-constructing the play (Goouch, 2008). Ultimately, adults need to let children play (Play England, 2009), so let children go out and get some fresh air.

If you would like to read more about play and see what children have to say, I would highly recommend reading ‘A report on children’s views on their right to play’ (The Children’s Parliament and The International Play Association, 2014) as it beautifully captures the child’s voice and their right to play.


BBC Radio 4. (2015) Noam Chomsky on Language Acquisition, Available at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7Cgpfw4z8cw(Accessed: 01.11.2018).

Bruce, T. (2001) Leaning through play: Babies, Toddlers and the Foundation Years, London: Hodder Arnold.

Brussoni, M. (2017) ‘Why kids need risk, fear and excitement in play’, The Conversation, (August), Available at: https://theconversation.com/why-kids-need-risk-fear-and-excitement-in-play-81450(Accessed: 20.11.2018).

Coates, J., and Pimlott-Wilson, H. (2018) ‘learning while playing: Children’s Forest School experiences in the UK’, British Educational Research Journal, DOI: 10.1002/berj.3491.

Cameron- Faulkner, T. (2014) ‘Language Development in the Young Child’, in Maynard, T., and Powell, S., An Introduction to Early Childhood Studies, 3rded., London: SAGE, p. 104.

Corsaro, W. (2005) ‘Social Theories of Childhood’, The Sociology of Childhood, 2nded., London: SAGE, p.15.

Department for Education (2017) Statutory framework for the early years foundation stage: setting the standards for learning, development and care for children from birth to five, Available at: https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/596629/EYFS_STATUTORY_FRAMEWORK_2017.pdf(Accessed: 20.11.2018).

Ernst, J. (2017) ‘Exploring young children’s and parents’ preferences for outdoor play setting and Affinity towards nature’ International Journal of Early Environmental Education, 5(2), pp.30- 45.

Fleer, M. (2015) ‘Pedagogical positioning in play – teachers being inside and outside of children’s imaginary play’, Early Chid Development and Care, 185(11-12), pp.1801-1814, DOI: 10.1080/03004430.2015.1028393.

Goouch, K. (2008) ‘Understanding playful pedagogies, play narratives and play spaces’, Early Years, 28(1), pp.93-102, DOI: 10.1080/09575140701815136.

Harris, F. (2017) ‘The nature of learning at forest school: practitioners’ perspectives’, Education 3-13, 45(2), pp. 272-291, DOI: 10.1080/03004279.2015.1078833.

Harwood, D., and Collier, D. (2017) ‘The matter of the stick: Storying/(re)storying children’s literacies in the forest’, Journal of Early Childhood Literacy, 17(3), pp.336-352, DOI: 10.1177/148797417712340.

Henley, J. (2010) ‘Why our children need to get outside and engage with nature’, The Guardian, 16 August.

Howard, J. (2014) ‘The Importance of Play’, in Mukherji, P., and Dryden, L., Foundations of Early Childhood principles and practice, London: SAGE, pp.122-140.

Joyce, R. (2012) Outdoor Learning: Past and present, Maidenhead: Open University Press.

LEGO Learning Institute. (2002) Time for Playful Learning? – A cross-cultural study of parental values and attitudes toward children’s time of play, Available at: http://www.playscotland.org/wp-content/uploads/assets/Documents/TheLEGOTimeStudyReport.pdf(Accessed: 16.11.2018).

Longfield, A., and Grey-Thompson, T. (2018) Playing out: A Children’s Commissioner’s report on the importance to children of play and physical activity, London: Children’s Commissioner, Available at: https://www.childrenscommissioner.gov.uk/wp-content/uploads/2018/08/Play-final-report.pdf(Accessed: 20.11.2018).

Mainella, F., Agate, J., and Clark, B. (2011) ‘Outdoor-based play and reconnection to nature: A neglected pathway to positive youth development’, New Directions for Youth Development, 2011(130), pp.89-104, DOI: 10.1002yd.399.

Mashall, J., and Lewis, E. (2014) “It’s the way you talk to them.’ The child’s environment: Early Years Practitioner’s perceptions of its influence on speech and language development, its assessment and environment targeted interventions’, Child Language Teaching and Therapy, 30(3), pp.337-352.

McLeod, S. (2018) ‘The Zone of Proximal Development and Scaffolding’, Simply Psychology, Available at: https://www.simplypsychology.org/Zone-of-Proximal-Development.html(Accessed: 11.12.2018).

Moyles, J. (2012) A to Z of Play in Early Childhood,Maidenhead: Open University Press.

Play England. (2009) Charters for Children’s Play, Available at: http://www.playengland.net/resource/charter-for-childrens-play/(Accessed: 20.11.2018).

Quetteville, H. (2009) ‘Swap the cotton wool for a mud pie’, The Telegraph, February, Available at: https://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/4690916/Swap-the-cotton-wool-for-a-mud-pie.html(Accessed: 27.11.2018)

Ransome, A. (1930) Swallows and Amazons, Middlesex: Puffin Books

Rogers, S. (2016) From theories of play to playing with theory. In T. David (Ed.) The Routledge International Handbook of Philosophies and Theories of Early Childhood Education and Care. Routledge: London.

Synodi, E. (2010) ‘Play in the kindergarten: the case of Norway, Sweden, New Zealand and Japan’, International Journal of Early Years Education, 18(3), pp.185-200. DOI: 10.1080/09669760.2010.521299.

TEDx Talks. (2014) Get hooked on nature: Ben Klasky at TEDxRainier,Available at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ArhjLa4xbNk(Accessed: 22.10.2018).

The Children’s Parliament., and The International Play Association (Scotland). (2014) ‘“I’d play all day and night if I could” A Report on Children’s Views on their Right to Play’, Available at: http://www.ipascotland.org/wp-content/uploads/2014/09/Right-to-Play-Report-IPA-CP1.pdf(Accessed: 11.12.2018).

Thornton, L., and Brunton, P. (2015) Understanding the Reggio Approach: Early years education in practice, 3rded, Oxon: Routledge.

UN Convention on the Rights of the Child. (1989) Convention on the rights of the child. Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, Geneva: United Nations, Available at: https://www.ohchr.org/Documents/ProfessionalInterest/crc.pdf(Accessed: 12.11.2018).

Whitebread, D. (2012) The importance of play, Cambridge University: Cambridge, pp.8-29, Available at: http://www.importanceofplay.eu/IMG/pdf/dr_david_whitebread_-_the_importance_of_play.pdf(Accessed: 22.10.2018).

Wilson, R. (2008) Nature and Young Children: Encouraging creative play and learning in natural environments, Oxon: Routledge.

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