Children can have fun and be active in any kind of landscape, but there’s no doubt that the more diverse and intriguing the space, the more likely it is that children will be drawn to explore it with their whole bodies. The Outdoors and Active project settings typify the range of outdoor spaces children have access to across the UK: from Nursery and Reception class playgrounds, with plenty of fixed play equipment and loose parts resources, through to richly diverse Children’s Centre gardens and pack away settings with limited space and time. What all the settings had in common was a strong desire to provide the best possible start for their children, and to embrace physicality as a route to health and wellbeing.
Auditing the landscape for playability was a first step, along with focused observations picking up the range and type of movements children were freely making. This helped settings identify gaps in provision, which in turn enabled them to plan for improvements to the features and layout of their outdoor spaces.
At the end of the action research, the Outdoors and Active team concluded that the following landscape features lent themselves to high levels of physically active, collaborative play:
- Non-manufactured elements: long swishy grass; wildflowers; mud and dirt; trees and shrubs; sand and water…
- Loose materials, in abundance: conkers; leaves; pine cones; sticks; acorns; shells; pebbles; sticks and twigs; log slices; straw bales; wooden curtain rings; feathers; dried seed heads; bamboo; dried seeds and beans; sawdust; ice…
Children need the opportunity to manipulate their landscape to suit their needs; permanently fixed, highly manufactured play elements tend to have a limited capacity to engage children for any length of time. In fact, research suggests that fixed equipment (which is expensive and inevitably comes with vast swathes of rubber) is unoccupied for up to 87% of the time it is available.
Natural materials and loose parts resources are compelling and responsive; research by Learning through Landscapes and Professor Ferre Laevers suggests that early years landscapes containing an abundance of natural materials and loose parts engage children for longer and have a positive effect on wellbeing.
Open spaces for free movement
- Unrestricted, uncluttered space, allowing children to run, walk, crawl or wheel freely; large expanses of level, obstacle free space;
Our researchers noticed that were the outdoor spaces were cluttered or busy with fixtures and features, children made fewer whole body big movements.
Check for avoidable trip hazards and if possible, create a permanently free area of the garden where children can engage in whole body, energetic movements when they need to.
- Steps and stairs; log stumps and fallen trees; decking; tunnels and bridges; ladders; tyres; mounds, hills and slopes; boulders, slides…
- Climbing structures; tree houses; traverse climbing wall, fireman’s pole…
The world is three-dimensional and children want to explore it in all its complexity and challenge. They love prospect and the sensation of whooshing up and down or round and round. Responding to these changes in topography generates strong and purposeful movements that promote the vestibular and proprioceptive senses.
Many different textures and surfaces
- Level, sloping, slippery, bumpy, loose, steep, uneven, soft, bouncy…
- Grass, sand, tarmac, slabs, cobblestones, mud, bark chips, logs, rocks, leaves…
- Lots of different ways to construct: bricks; hollow blocks; timber planks; guttering…
Learning to manage movement on different levels and surfaces helps children understand their bodies better. They’ll acquire an ability to quickly adjust their posture, pace and direction as they tackle varying and challenging terrain.
Opportunities to go barefoot on various surfaces should be exploited. Bare feet collect information from the ground in ways that shod feet simply can’t; part of becoming “bodyful” is developing a heightened proprioceptive sense, and going barefoot allows the muscles, nerves and limbs to learn about balance, practice the “grip” and “push off” functions and build strength and resilience in the arch of the foot.
Opportunities to take responsibility
- Storage strategies that enable children to participate in setting up, planning and clearing up their play scenarios; transporting, pushing and pulling and carrying awkward objects…
Uncluttered spaces where children can mimic and copy one another’s movements; access to a CD player and a few items of dressing up clothing appeared to expand the movement possibilities and built children’s confidence and leadership roles.
Places for privacy, concealment and solitude
- Willow tepee, playhouse, tree and shrub corner; hammock strung between trees; boulder circle, sheet and stick den; cardboard box haven; mini-woodland…
Whilst the focus of Outdoors and Active was on persuading children to move energetically and to develop bodyfulness, participants recognised that children also need places of retreat and calm in which they might recharge batteries, take time out to rest, withdraw with friends and observe other friends at play. Learning how to manage energy levels and regenerate is as important as being physically active.
Features to climb on, jump over, stretch from and squeeze through or under
- Rocks and boulders; places of prospect; ladders, ropes and trees with low branches; tyres and crates; tunnels and bridges; fences and gates; haybales; boxes; blankets and nets…
Expansive and whole body movements requiring use and co-ordination of big muscle groups are crucial for children’s later mastery of pen and pencil; the tripod grip (and holding cutlery, a paintbrush, handlebars and so on) requires control of the fingers, wrist, forearm, shoulders and back.
Standing still is one of the most demanding actions for a young child to do and is impossible until control of large muscle groups has been achieved. Repeated and successful climbing, clambering, balancing, squeezing and leaping are all important advances on the journey to bodyfulness.
What all of these landscape features have in common is the element of risky, challenging play. Of all the discoveries the Outdoors and Active team made, the most resonant was the need to become less risk averse in the way outdoor play was planned, managed and implemented. We used the increasingly common “risk benefit” approach to risk assessment; advocated by the Health and Safety Executive and the Play Safety Forum amongst many other organisations, risk benefit assessment was designed to enable exciting, challenging play, rather than preventing it.
The Outdoors and Active action researchers used the philosophy “as safe as necessary, not as safe as possible” as they carried out their projects. In practice, this means identifying the benefits of the activity, before examining the hazards. Weighing up the likelihood of a hazard occurring, alongside the severity of the hazard will provide the “balanced approach” to risk that the Health and Safety Executive recommends.