Going out to play and learn

Why go outside?

Big movers

Have you ever been in an open space with young children? The first thing they want to do is to break away from your hand and run! They are born with the desire to move, and open space is exciting.

Learning to move is not just about making muscles strong, it is also vital for children’s growth and development. It helps them learn about the world and their place in it. So movement is important and it requires lots of room. The space outdoors, in gardens, woodlands and parks, provides children with so much of what they need to stimulate their minds and bodies.

Risk and challenge

Young children need to learn how to use their bodies. They need to find out how strong they are, how fast they can run, how loud they can shout and how high they feel safe to climb. They test themselves as part of growing up and become good at working out what their body can and cannot do.

This involves a degree of risk – for them and for us. It sometimes means that we have to be brave about letting children try out their growing strength. We have to learn which of our fears about safety are important and which we can let the children work out for themselves.

So while you might insist that children hold your hand and walk steadily near roads, you may let them run faster than usual down a hill in the park. Falling down is part of growing up. When children are able to try out new things with their body, they develop the confidence to use it well and to believe in their own decisions.


One of the joys of a good outdoor area where children can play is that nature provides the toys. A leaf becomes a plate and twigs are used as knives and forks.

When children pretend in this way something amazing is happening in their minds. They are thinking in symbols – making one thing “become” another.

Thinking in symbols like this is very important in helping children to become good readers, writers, counters and problem-solvers. This is because writing and numbers are also symbols. They stand for the words that we speak and the amounts that we count. They are not the real things. Children are sometimes hurried through their early learning and are made to sit down with paper and pencil tasks. But they need to learn their “pretend” skills first.

Children need to be outside

Children learn best by being very active physically. This is especially true of boys, who can sometimes find it almost painful to sit down for a long time – they need to move. Young children who are like this will always feel the need to move about if expected to sit still for too long. These children often find themselves in trouble because they can’t keep quiet. This can have a terrible effect on their self respect and their confidence as learners, which can continue into school. Going outdoors solves the problem for children who need to move as it gives them plenty of opportunities to learn while their bodies are active and busy. And if they have been able to move a lot as young children, they are more likely to be ready for sitting when they get to school.

Things to do in the garden

If you have a garden, it’s a good idea to have things for children to do there and special places set aside for them.

  • Create a place where children can just dig in the earth with proper trowels and hand forks. Don’t bother with plastic ones as they bend in the soil and children can’t do anything real with them – though do show children how to dig soil with these tools so that they can use them safely. Make sure everyone understands they are not to be used in any other way.
  • Together with the children, make a pretend lawn mower out of cardboard boxes and tubes.
  • If you have a mature tree, hang a rope swing from it and, depending on the shape of the tree, the children’s confidence and their physical skill, encourage them to climb the tree.
  • Install a sandpit. Sandpits are great learning places for young children. As well as having fun with sandcastles, children love to play pretend with sand, perhaps by counting ladlefuls of it into old pans and talking about the delicious soup they’ve made.
  • If you have a garden tap or water barrel, allow the children to fill buckets and use brushes to “paint” using just water, or to water the plants and make mud pies. (If you don’t have a tap or a barrel, find a large old container which can be filled with water and used outside whenever the children want it.)
  • Mud is also lovely stuff for painting with – either on to paper or, if you can bear it, on to outside walls. It washes off beautifully.
  • Encourage the children to help you with the gardening. Enjoy with them the thrill (or horror) at finding snails, slugs and worms, and talk about how some creatures help the garden grow and how others don’t.
  • Set up tents and dens in the garden. They can set off all sorts of pretend play and don’t need to be bought; a sheet draped over a few chairs will work just as well – if not better.
  • Go outside with babies. They can sleep and play there, and share books with you about the birds you see.
  • Children love to be out in different kinds of weather. Windy days make them excited, so fix a plastic shopping bag on to a stick so that children can feel the strength of the wind. And, of course, shovelling snow into buckets with spades will hold their interest for a long time. If you don’t have a garden at home (and even if you do), access to a garden is something you can look for when choosing a childminder, nursery or school for your child. Share the ideas here with a childminder so that the children can enjoy them during their time away from home. Good nurseries with outdoor spaces allow children to choose whether they want to be in or out throughout the session, because they know that children need to be able to learn outside as well as in. Some reception classes in schools are also able to offer this.

Things to do in the park

  • When young children get to the grassy freedom of a park they often want to just run, so take equipment like balls, skipping ropes and streamers with you that will give some purpose to their running.
  • Use the park facilities. On the swings, climbing frames, slides and roundabouts, use words like “up” and “down”, “around”, “on top of”, “behind”, “back” and “forwards” as children move about. Words like these only make sense if children actually feel them with their bodies.
  • Show how much you enjoy the outdoors, perhaps by lying under the huge trees together, watching the sky through the leaves and talking about what you see and feel.
  • Have a picnic. Children will often try new food when they eat in the open air, partly because the fresh air and exercise makes them more hungry.
  • Listen to all the sounds in the park and make your own – a stick dragged along the railings can accompany your songs.
  • Find out the names of the plants, trees and birds – either from books or by asking other people.
  • Count squirrels and collect leaves, conkers or stones to sort and make into patterns and pictures. Take collecting jars and bags with you.
  • Let children take some pictures of what they see, then make a simple books about your visit when you get home

Things to do when you’re out and about

There is so much to talk about when catching the bus with children, going to the shops and local market or even posting a letter. You can talk about which bus to catch, how to get there, what to buy and how much it will cost. Because children learn quickly when information is full of meaning for them, it’s good to just talk about what you are doing as these everyday events are packed with good memories and knowledge.

A regular visit to the library offers the perfect chance to build an enjoyment of books and reading while also having some time outdoors. And if there is a free, local museum, it is good to pop in with young children just to see one exhibit rather than trail around the whole place.

When to go out?

Young children need to be outside in the middle of winter just as much as they do in the summer. To make this possible, you need the right clothing – for yourself as well as the children.

Make sure you have wellies and umbrellas for wet weather, warm clothes for cold, windy days and long-sleeved lightweight tee shirts and caps for strong sunshine. The children’s enthusiasm at being outside will soon help you enjoy being out in the rain.

When children need to get out and your nerves are frayed, being in a big outdoor space will make life better for both you and the children. Their time outdoors doing interesting things will help them to digest their food and have a good sleep from being physically tired. It will make them healthier, fitter and stronger.

Marjorie Ouvry is an independent early childhood education consultant and author, with over 30 years’ experience as a teacher, Ofsted inspector, school governor and head teacher of two large nursery schools. Her book Exercising muscles and minds is regarded by early years professionals as essential reading on outdoor play.

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