Doing your own action research project

Are children at your setting moving enough?  Do they enjoy plenty of physically active outdoor play?  The Newham Outdoors and Active practitioners spent eight months working through an action research project in order to identify the best ways to get their children moving and in touch with their own bodies.  Here’s how you could do the same thing in your setting.

Action research is research that is undertaken as a response to a recognised area of need.  It usually takes place in the workplace (eg your setting, or your home if you’re a childminder) and involves reflection, open ended questions and challenging your own existing practices.

Step 1: Where are we now?

The Outdoors and Active programme began with explorations into what was meant by the term physical development, and how it differs from physicality.  These important documents and books and will help you form ideas about what high quality outdoor physicality should look like in your setting:

  • Every Child A Mover by Jan White (Early Education, 2015) was a key text for us and is highly recommended as a guide to planning and making changes
  • The Well Balanced Child by Sally Goddard Blythe (Hawthorn Press 2014).
  • The British Heart Foundation guidance on physical activity for walkers and for non-walkers is essential reading.
  • Exercising Muscles and Minds by Marjorie Ouvry (NCB 2003) provides an excellent overview of the connection between movement and cognition

The next action is to establish what is currently happening outdoors, so that you can identify gaps in provision.  We did this using several audit tools:

Each of these audits should be repeated at least three or four times, at different times of the day and in different weathers, in order to gain a complete picture of physical development opportunities as they currently stand.

Taking time with colleagues to analyse the outcomes of these surveys is important, not least to avoid travelling a pre-determined route in your action research.  Challenging your own and others’ established practices, views and conventions is a key element of action research.

Step 2: Where do we want to be?

Drawing up a vision for physical development and physicality is the logical step, once a clear picture of current practice has been established.  Take time to gather colleagues together; working towards a vision is almost impossible without the support and back up of everyone who’ll be affected by it.  Share the outcomes of the initial auditing stage, considering any gaps in provision that have become apparent. 

  • What do you aspire to for children’s physical health and wellbeing?
  • What should outdoor play look like at your setting?
  • What do you want children to be able to do outdoors?  Note – not what do you want them to have!
  • How will you manage provision of physical risk and challenge?
  • What might the barriers be to achieving your vision?

Create a short statement that encapsulates your shared aspirations for physicality and physical development outdoors.  The statement should be clear and concise, but practical and achievable.

Step 3: How can we get there?

Once a vision statement has been agreed, it’s time to create an action research query that will guide your investigations outdoors. 

  • Your query shouldn’t be too broad (“How can we improve physicality outdoors?”) or too narrow. 
  • Whilst the beauty of action research is that you’re never going to be absolutely certain about the outcome, you should couch the question in terms that suggest confidence in a positive outcome – “How will increasing access to outdoor play in all weathers improve the frequency of physical activity?”.
  • Take care not to generate a query that could have a simple “yes” or “no” answer.  So ask “In what ways can we help parents understand the importance of physically active play?” rather than “Can we support parents…?”.
  • Choose an action research query that can be supported by evidence and data, so that once it’s complete, you can make a strong case for long-term change.  Quantitative and qualitative data are both valid and important to capture.

An action plan will help you plot a route through the action research.  It should set out:

  • Your vision statement
  • Your action research query
  • Measuring success – how you’ll compare outcomes with your initial audit data
  • Key collaborators

Short-term actions – what do you want to test/achieve in the next 6 weeks?

  • List the steps you plan to take, building in regular time for reflection and tweaking of the project.
  • What resources might you need?  Where will you source them?  What budget is there?
  • Who will help?  Who needs to know?
  • What kind of enabling environment do you want to create?  What sort of atmosphere will it have?

Medium term actions – after reflection, what can you do over the following 3 – 4 months?

As above, plus:

  • How will you communicate progress with your key collaborators and other stakeholders?  How will you seek feedback, and how will you incorporate it (where appropriate)?
  • What are the management issues?  What are the budgeting issues?


  • Essential resources to push the research forward
  • Resources you should plan to acquire in the next 6 months in order to sustain change
  • Resources wish list – fundraising challenges, perhaps?

Step 4: Making the changes

At the end of your action research period, review progress.  This is a crucial stage; be honest about what worked and what didn’t, and if possible, ask a colleague to work with you to pick out the interventions that need to be implemented permanently.  Gather and present your evidence so that you can make the case for change, along with any requests for a budget allocation or changes in the way outdoors is organised or managed.  Long term, sustainable change is only possible with whole setting buy-in, so keep colleagues fully informed during this important phase.

Step 5: Celebrate

Audit the provision of physically active play, using the same audit tools as step one.  Celebrate the changes – share details with parents and colleagues; talk to children about how they have progressed throughout the action research project period, asking them what they can now do, what they enjoyed trying, what they’d like to do next and sharing photographs and video footage of their journey.

If you’ve made significant changes to the layout, features or resources of outdoors, consider celebrating with a grand relaunch, inviting everyone that helped, parents and local community members, and of course your local authority early years team!

Further reading

Outdoors and Active

Outdoors and Active – an action research project commissioned by the London Borough of Newham – took practitioners from nurseries, schools, PVI settings and children’s

Read More »

What to do

Busy modern lives are having a dramatic impact on the health and wellbeing of our youngest children.  They play outdoors less, spend more time being

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Boing! Whoosh! RolyPoly!

Toddlers need plenty of balance practice once they are up and walking. Each of the three semi-circular canals in the inner ear respond to movement in different

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Overcoming barriers

An early task for the Outdoors and Active action researchers was to identify the barriers to taking children out and about beyond the setting.  Only

Read More »

Taking risks in play

Human beings are “hardwired” to take risks, from birth.  Babies take their first independent breaths; they decide to try crawling and walking and then running;

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Audit your environment

To audit the current provision for physical development outdoors in your school or setting, you can download our three sample audit sheets below. You should

Read More »

Grab and Go Kits

Some of the childminders involved in the Outdoors and Active project thought that a kit of easy to carry, low cost resources could encourage children

Read More »

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