Enabling Environments: Collections - Follow the leader

The outdoors offers opportunities to get creative with role play. Nicole Weinstein suggests how practitioners might provide resources to support, and build on, children's natural interests.

The outdoors enables children to experience role play on a much larger, noisier and messier scale than they would otherwise be able to. Big, sensory fun takes place when children play car washes, become fire-fighters with hoses or set up construction sites in sand pits.

Stages or outdoor theatres encourage children to develop their creativity through drama, dance and impromptu talent contests. Props such as hats, masks, dressing-up clothes, CD players, microphones and instruments will further extend their play.

Physical play in the form of superheroes is great for both co-ordination and working out moral values. Practitioners should also offer children a wide range of open-ended resources like blocks, large cardboard boxes, and large pieces of material and tarpaulins to help develop their thinking and creative skills.


Sue Chambers, senior London Early Years Foundation associate and former teacher and local authority early years adviser, says that role play outdoors takes place in a way that is not possible indoors, due to the open space and scope for larger-scale play, so it is 'vital' that practitioners make use of it.

She explains, 'First and foremost, follow the children's interests. Don't say, "We're planning role play - let's do a cafe". It's got to have come from some work that you've done with them that they are interested in, or because you've observed that the children are interested in an area.'

Open-ended resources often offer the most play value over a sustained period of time, as Ms Chambers discovered when a setting she worked at in Bristol was given some old engine castings.

'These metre-cubed "cases" were my best pieces of equipment ever,' she recalls. 'In fact, when I moved settings, I got my husband, a carpenter, to replicate them. He made three packing cases out of used floorboards. All the sides were closed apart from one. We had three of them in the garden with ladders, boxes, steering wheels, tyres, and dressing-up clothes - a pile of hats and tabards.

'These boxes could be anything the children wanted them to be. Sometimes they became a bus, a train or a space ship. Once, after reading the Eric Carle book (Why Noah Chose the Dove), the children decided to turn the boxes into Noah's ark. They had to co-operate on how to turn them over, which required a lot of discussion. They then had to decide who was Noah and we had all the giraffes clambering in. They produced some wonderful role play.'


Bird song, a flower, scented herbs, a helicopter flying overhead, or trees blowing in the wind all add to the awe and wonder of being outdoors. This, combined with the fact that children can use all of their large muscles, can shout without being told to be quiet, and are able to find secret places to hide or play in takes role play to a different level outdoors.

Like Sue Chambers, Jo Vickers, manager at Weavers Fields Community Nursery in Tower Hamlets, London, feels that it is vital to follow the children's lead when supporting role play outdoors.

'Observe, listen and take note of what really interests the children and gets their imaginations running wild,' she says. 'They will then come up with fantastic ideas and solutions to making things work.

'For example, a child at the nursery was talking about pirates one morning - a practitioner overheard and encouraged the children to develop the idea further. This took about three months to explore in total, and it was up to the staff to encourage and introduce resources to construct a pirate ship on our wooden platform outside.

'We used a white sheet for a sail, a rope to climb up the side of the platform and a plank to jump off. Paper plates were used to make portholes along the side of the ship. The children wanted a treasure chest, so a cardboard box was found and decorated with jewels and shells and the children looked for things in the nursery and garden for treasure. They had fantastic discussions about what went into the box.

'The whole idea took an unexpected twist one afternoon when a couple of parents were in the garden looking at the pirate ship and one of the children said, "There's a shark". So the parent pretended to be a shark and began "swimming" around the garden. Another parent became a lighthouse and by the end of the afternoon almost every parent from the nursery was in the garden in the middle of November.

'The next day staff began to make a shark with the children, painted grey, and a lighthouse painted white with a red light - both made out of huge cardboard boxes, sticky tape, paint and glue. The shark was big enough for several children to sit on.'


Outside role play is a great way of supporting boys' learning and even the most reluctant writers are often keen to have a go when writing opportunities or mathematical problems are linked to their interests outside. Practitioners can also link to their bike play or popular culture.

At Moreland Primary School and Children's Centre in north London, Islington, children have unrestricted access to den-making materials and equipment, tyres, crates, blocks, planks, tools, cooking equipment, pipes and guttering.

Catherine Lawrence, early years co-ordinator, says, 'These end up becoming Batman's car, castles, space ships, pirate hideouts, aeroplanes and much more and we see fantastic collaborative play and problem-solving coming out with very little adult interference.

'I remember an afternoon where I started off an adult-led maths activity about making mazes using loose parts with two groups of children. While one group made a wonderful maze together, another group of boys completely redirected the activity to fit their interests and created an army camp from tyres complete with "Keep Out" and "Danger" signs they had written themselves. It turned out, unbeknown to me, that they had seen a full-size tank driving past the playground the day before.

'In the end, the first group who had "followed" my learning intention and made a maze then turned their maze into a big den. None of this would have happened if the children didn't have access to a wide range of open-ended loose parts and play resources and the confidence to use them for their own purpose.'


Here is a list of key resources for outdoor role play:

  • cosyladderConstruction sites are popular with children and Bob the Builder fans. Turn sand pits into building sites, bring woodwork tables outside, encourage architectural drawings and plans and provide a wide range of building resources to extend role play further. Try the Construction Site set of six tabards, two hard hats and pairs of work gloves and barrier tape (£129), a Two-Way Spirit Level (£1.29), a JCB Dumper (£109.95), Mini Real Life Ladders Set of two (£69.95), a set of four Super Tough Cones and Poles (£135), Outdoor Bricks - Terracotta (25 for £49.99) and a Set of Six Swivel Pulleys (£24.99), all from Cosy Direct on 01332 370152.


  • earlyexCollections of outdoor role-play resources available from Early Excellence include the Accident and Emergency Collection, which focuses on the familiar roles of the police, ambulance crews and fire fighters; the Den and Camping collection, which provides children with opportunities to act out familiar situations such as living, eating and sleeping outdoors; the Garage and Car Wash collection, which includes dressing-up clothes, tools, buckets, sponges, hosepipes, signs and whiteboards to encourage recording - perhaps filling out an MOT certificate or creating their own number plates and signs. A Heroes and Villians Collection is also available, which features capes, masks and props for superheroes and pirates. All the resources can be viewed at www.earlyexcellence.com/outdoor_play_range.html or http://shop.earlyexcellence.com/ search?q=car+and+garage&search-button.x=0&search-button.y=0


  • Children can act out their favourite fairytale characters and stories with the new Storytelling range from www.tts-group.co.uk, which includes the Storyteller's Cottage (£3,999.95), the Storyteller's Table and Chairs (£149.95), which features two chairs and a table, and the Storyteller's Bench (£149.95). The Woodland Postbox £149.95, also from TTS Group, can be left outdoors and used to send message to pirates, fairies or wizards.


  • Bikes are a great starting point for superhero play, mechanics, car washes, Formula 1, transport and delivery drivers - and are a great stimulus for writing in role. Try the Easyclip Trike Clipboard Set of two (£4.99), the Superhero Trike Badges 6 pack (£11.99), the Bike/Fence Basket (£14.99), the Mechanics Trolley (£21.25), the Clanking Workshop Toys (£30), Delivery People Tabards (£69.95) and the Rabo Chariot Tricycle (£210), all from Cosy. Also, try the Aeolus Tricycle Chariot (£145.30) from www.wesco-eshop.co.uk.


  • Telling stories and performing is an important part of dramatic play. Outside, children are often more confident and willing to have a go at performing. The Octagon Stage (£104.99) and the Corner/Square Stage (from £55) or the Billy Goats Gruff Bridge (£169) and the Wooden Carved Out Seat of three (£59.99), all from Cosy, are a good stimulus for re-telling traditional well-known stories like The Billy Goats Gruff or The Three Bears.


  • superheroSuperheroes and fantasy play, popular culture and favourites like knights and pirates are a great starting point for imaginary play. Provide open-ended resources alongside dressing-up clothes for children to create their own superhero den, pirate ship or castle. Try the set of four Superhero Capes (£25.99), the Superhero Wrist Watches (£12.49 for six), the Giant Pirate Flag (£1.75), the Walk the Plank (£9.95), all from Cosy. For pirate play, try the bag of gold-coloured clay pebbles - Pirates' Gold - (£2.49) or the Pirate Flag (£1.49) from www.muddyfaces.co.uk. Or for easy-to-slip-on costumes, try the Cape Costumes (£43.20 for three) from www.wesco-eshop.com, or TTS Group's set of three Superhero Dress Up costumes (£64.95). Wesco also has a range of outfits including the Knight (£25.20), the Astronaut (£25.50) and the Foreman (£20.60).


  • Reflections on Learning provides a range of resources to support scientific outdoor role play for your young environmental explorers. Practitioners can create habitats for birds and small invertebrates, which will become active players in your outdoor role-play provision. Try establishing a log pile, a rotten tree trunk or a bird-feeding station to encourage wildlife. Use the Let's Explore: Looking Closely Outdoors Kit (£29.99) for further investigation, from www.reflectionsonlearning.co.uk


  • Hang hats, capes and bags on the Possibility Tree (£50) from www.playtoz.co.uk to inspire role play.



There is so much that can be done to encourage role play - even in the smallest of outdoor spaces.

Jo Vickers, manager at Weavers Fields Community Nursery in Tower Hamlets, London, says, 'If there's only a small garden, yard or patio in your setting, try to think how you can maximise the play space. Don't crowd it with too many pieces of equipment or toys.

'Our outdoor space is about the size of a back yard so we were keen to maximise the ground space, but at the same time we needed storage. We have a wooden platform with stairs to the upper level with cupboards built underneath, one of which since has become a den.

'The platform has been used for numerous ideas, for example, a pirate ship and the giant's castle from Jack and the Beanstalk.'



- This is the House That Jack Built by Simms Taback - Caldecott winner Taback builds a house and fills it with cheeses that attract the rat that stirs the cat ...

- A House in the Woods by Inga Moore - four animal friends build a house in the woods together. A visual delight and touching celebration of friendship.

At sea

- The Little Boat by Kathy Henderson and Patrick Benson - a boy's little polystyrene boat is swept out to sea, and adventure.

- Gracie, the Lighthouse Cat by Ruth Brown - Gracie's rescue of her kitten in a storm mirrors that of little girl Grace Darling,who saves sailors from a ship on the rocks.

- The Pirates Next Door by Jonny Duddle - in this award-winning bestseller, the gossiping begins when the Jolley-Rogers family move to a quiet seaside town. Perfect for challenging stereotypes.

- The Fierce Little Woman and the Wicked Pirate by Joy Cowley and Sarah Davis -a feisty woman takes to the seas in this non-stereotypical love story.

- Why Noah Chose the Dove by Isaac Bashevis Singer and Eric Carle.

- Captain Flinn and the Pirate Dinosaurs by Giles Andreae and Russell Ayto.

- Shark in the Dark, Shark in the Park and Pirate Pete, all by Nick Sharratt.


For a superhero adventure and superhero books, see www.nursery world.co.uk/nursery-world/feature/1143538/ learning-development-superhero-play-superkids-movie.


Susan Steggall's transport books combine essential vocabulary and facts with vibrant images and descriptive language. See, The Diggers Are Coming! and Life of a Car, which tracks a car from factory floor to scrapyard, ready for recycling.

Alternatively, see the Amazing Machines series by Tony Mitton and Ant Parker.

Professional books

Playing and Learning Outdoors: making provision for high-quality experiences in the outdoor environment by Jan White.

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