Playing and Learning Outside the Classroom
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“More than anything, outdoor play makes children happy,
and happy children thrive”
(Prisk & Cusworth, 2018, p.12)
Teaching and learning through play can occur both inside and outside the four walls of the classroom environment. Traditionally, children engage in play outside for set times such as morning tea and lunch breaks as well as timetabled physical education lessons. When teachers implement play pedagogies, it is important to include opportunities for children to engage in play that moves outside the classroom walls and for extended periods of time, over and above the traditional ‘break’ times. These differ from outdoor education, or ‘outward bound’ type activities that often occur off-site. While these are valuable experiences, the focus of this resource is to build teachers’ understanding of why outdoor play is valuable and how to incorporate it deliberately into the school program.
Why play and learn outside at school?
While historically children had many opportunities to engage in play outdoors, the present generation faces varied restrictions on being able to get outside to play. A significant body of evidence indicates that parents are, for many reasons, limiting their children’s opportunities to play outside, in contrast to the independent play opportunities they had when they were children themselves (Prisk & Cusworth, 2018). In 2015, a global survey of 12,000 parents in ten countries (Indonesia, Brazil, Portugal, China, Turkey, South Africa, India, UK, USA, and Vietnam) (Endelmen Intelligence, 2016) identified that:
- 56% of children played outside for one hour or less a day
- 65% of children in the US and 74% of children in the UK play for an hour or less outside per day
- Playground space is continuing to decrease in many cities
- 60% of parents reported their children did not know how to play unless technology was involved, while 80% of parents reported children refusing to play without some form of technology
- 80% of parents acknowledged their children preferred to play virtual sports on screens rather than real sports outside
With decreased opportunities for outdoor play at home and in the wider community, proponents of the outdoor play movement are encouraging schools to acknowledge the critical link between physically active, healthy, and happy children and their ability to engage in learning in the school environment. Schools that incorporate opportunities for children to engage in regular outdoor learning and play every day can demonstrate improved school engagement, physical and mental health, and enjoyment at school (Endelmen Intelligence, 2016). When schools prioritise the use of outdoor settings as a resource to improve learning engagement, they send a message that learning outdoors is an important part of children’s lives.
The Benefits of Outdoor Play and Learning
The benefits for children, when engaged in outdoor play and learning, are wide-ranging. These include:
Increased physical activity: children engaged in outdoor play are more active over a sustained period of time compared to those engaged in indoor play (Active Healthy Kids Australia, 2016; Baines & Blatchrod, 2011; Beresin, 2016; Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 2010). Research undertaken in the UK identified that children are more than two-and-a-half times more active when outdoors compared to indoors (Cooper et al., 2010)
Healthier children: outdoor play contributes to increased development and refinement of motor skills, including balance, coordination, and motor fitness. In turn, children are able to concentrate for longer periods of time, have improved eyesight, and as a result, can learn more (Langford et al., 2014; Brussoni et al., 2015; Robinson & Aronica, 2018).
Better learning outcomes: research has identified improvements across all academic disciplines when children are engaged in outdoor learning and play. Children develop an enthusiasm for learning and an aptitude for problem-solving because of their outdoor play (Strauss & Hanscom, 2014). Outdoor play provides hands-on, real-world learning experiences, that enable children to apply new knowledge and information to, in a meaningful context. When this occurs, children are more likely to be engaged and motivated to solve difficult problems or challenges and understand the relevance of this information to their own learning.
Improved mental health: research has identified the connection between time spent in nature and an improved sense of wellbeing. Learning and playing in nature increases children’s resilience, helps children feel calmer and increases a sense of joy, a key element for healthy mental well-being.
The benefits continue beyond early education: studies have identified that the number of daily hours children spend in pre-school outdoors is associated with lower inattention-hyperactivity symptoms and higher scores on standardised tests measuring executive functions such as attention and short-term memory. This is attributed to the type of play children engage in within outdoor settings that are often focused, interactive with peers, and involving peer conflict resolution. Studies examining the correlation between the number of hours spent outside playing, and cognitive development have identified that these benefits continue through until children enter more formal schooling contexts at 7 years of age (Endelmen Intelligence, 2016).
Integrating the Curriculum with Outdoor Play: An Example
Whenever the opportunity arose, James, Jasdeep, and Michael chose to play outside constructing a ‘mansion’ with the large loose parts their teacher, David, provided during their learning through playtime. They were observed discussing the layout of the house, which rooms would be built, and how they will be used. Each day, their project seemed to grow, with more rooms being added to the house. Other children joined in and were given construction jobs to complete, ready for their inspection. David completed observations of this play over a few days and noticed the strong construction and ordering urge the boys had. In response to this, he identified more unusual loose parts he could add to the resources available for the boys to build with. These included tarpaulins, a small step ladder, some rope, and some nails and plywood. He identified that the boys were demonstrating some links in their play with the technology, science, mathematics, and literacy curriculums. During their whole-class meeting time, before play began for the morning session, David read the book Iggy Peck, Architect (Beaty, 2007) and shared with the class some examples of house plans. He showed them on the whiteboard what the symbols for the house plans meant, and how architects drew their ideas in their planning. He commented that he had noticed how big the boys’ house was getting, and the types of rooms they were wanting. He wondered aloud whether they may be interested in using some clipboards and some of the blank house plans he had left out to help them with their design. From this discussion, the class was then able to head out into their play. David continued to observe the boys’ play and noted that Jasdeep took on the role of chief architect, especially when David provided him with a hi-vis jacket and hard hat! Jasdeep made sure he recorded the rooms being built and discussed deeply with the other boys the direction of the build. As needed, David also supplied metre rulers, and builders measuring tapes, chalk, and even a level. David returned to this play as it continued to grow, observing the children’s learning, and contributing new ideas and knowledge about house construction when the boys were receptive to the information.
- Level 2 Technological Practice (all three indicators);
- Level 2 Mathematics: Geometry and Measurement;
- Level 2 English: Listening, Reading, Viewing, Speaking, and Writing.
Where to Start
As with indoor play, there are many opportunities across the school day for child-led, intrinsically motivated play outdoors. By preparing the school environment for outdoor play, teachers can capitalise on these opportunities while minimising an increase in their planning workload. Some important considerations in doing this include:
Space and resourcing
Consider the physical environment outside the classroom that students have to play in. Do they have access to green spaces, or are they limited to concrete areas? Is there space for them to be able to run, jump, climb, balance, and dig? If so, do they have access to loose parts that will build on this play further, and enable them to be creative or problem-solve in their play? Consider including large loose parts such as:
- Planks of wood, tyres, pallets, ropes, and tarpaulin/cloth
- Shovels, hammers, drills, and other tools
- Pipes, hoses, buckets, containers to promote water play
- Ladders, electrical reels, trolleys, or carts
- A mud-kitchen/sensory table
Some schools face challenges that make the management of play outside difficult, such as classrooms on an upper floor level or that back onto a concrete courtyard. If your space is restricted and students do not have the ability to engage with large loose parts in a natural setting, consider where on your school property this could occur. Do you have an area near the school field with trees or other greenery? Is there a spot around the back of the school where children could dig without damaging the gardens or walkways? Rather than allowing children to move freely between indoors and outdoors, you may need to timetable a dedicated amount of time to have the class as a whole play in another area of the school where you are able to supervise. This may mean taking a reading group while sitting under a tree as others play, or having children collect several loose parts each to transport collectively to an area at the other end of the school to enable this play to occur.
If schools value the benefits outdoor learning and play offer their students, they should prioritise making time available for students to be outside regularly. However, competing demands of the curriculum may provide a barrier to ensuring a commitment to frequent and consistent outdoor play opportunities for students. Integrating the curriculum with opportunities for outdoor play may assist teachers to feel less burdened by these competing demands. Teachers who can identify and respond to the curriculum when children play outdoors feel confident and reassured that time spent learning outside is relevant and beneficial to children’s learning outcomes.
A key message from the research is that children benefit from play outdoors that is every day and often. Identifying how often and how regularly children play outdoors is a key starting point to providing further opportunities for regular outdoor play. Ways to ensure frequent and consistent time outside learning could include:
- providing opportunities for play immediately outside the classroom space
- timetabling play opportunities for a specific time each day
- timetabling several blocks of complete ‘outdoor’ play and moving as a whole class to a designated area in the school for this play, such as the playground, an area of native bush, or the school field
- designating one day a week, fortnight, month, or term as the ‘outdoor classroom’ day, teaching other curriculum areas through play outdoors and ensuring that all play is well resourced
- extending a lunch or morning tea break into the next ‘block’ of the timetable to allow for an extended period of outdoor play
Health and safety
A perceived challenge by many teachers is the need for adequate supervision of outdoor play and the management of potential risks or hazards that may occur when children play with large loose parts. The National Administration Guidelines (Section 5) (Ministry of Education, 2021) highlight the responsibilities of school boards of trustees have in ensuring children have a safe physical and emotional environment, and that there is compliance with legislation that ensures the safety of students and employees. However, it is important to make a distinction between risks and potential hazards when ensuring students are kept safe during their outdoor play. Risky play is important for students’ physical development, executive function development, communication, resilience, and problem-solving. Engaging in play with a risk factor (such as play that has physical risk, or is challenging or thrilling in some way) has been linked to increased engagement in physical activity and psychological wellbeing. In order to balance the developmental needs of students with their safety, teachers can ensure that students are kept safe by identifying and managing potential hazards in the outdoor learning environment and mitigate these while ensuring students have the opportunity to engage in play that contains the alluring risk factor. Hazards are often environmental factors that students are developmentally unable to identify, assess and manage themselves, such as noticing nails protruding from planks of wood, sharp edges on fencing, and rope or string tied in a way that is an obstacle. Teachers can manage the occurrence of hazards in the play environment whilst ensuring that students can engage in play that tests boundaries, thrills, excites, or challenge them in a variety of ways.
The value of outdoor play is well documented across education literature, and the integration of this into the school sector is growing. The challenge for teachers exists is recognising the importance of ensuring outdoor play occurs well past the morning tea and lunch breaks at school. To do this, teachers require support to resource, recognise and respond to the learning that occurs during outdoor play. Challenges such as the physical environment, timetabling, health and safety, and resourcing can be overcome when schools are focused on creating learning opportunities that can ensure the benefits of outdoor play described above. Schools wanting to ensure a rich outdoor play environment are encouraged to invest time in resourcing for outdoor play and developing systems for the timetabling and management of play in the outdoor space. This may include clear health and safety protocols, to ensure risky play can occur, whilst hazards are carefully managed. Many schools are now exploring how outdoor play can be enabled successfully in the primary school setting. Those beginning this process will benefit from reaching out to other schools that are confidently developing these school-wide systems for outdoor play.
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