Enabling Environments: Outdoors - Chalk it up

It's an eye-opening experience to observe what children (and adults) really go for in a setting's outdoor provision, as Janice Ellis discovers.

How well do we support children's outdoor play? Do we just assume that children love everything about the outdoors and so neglect to heed the extent to which they favour some equipment and activities over others?

These were some of the questions I wanted to reflect upon while working as a children's centre teacher and attending a course on outdoor learning. In response, I carried out detailed observations of children's play and shared these with staff as a means of improving their engagement in children's outdoor learning. It was an enlightening exercise.


I started observing how the children used fixed pieces of equipment - a large wooden slide, a train, willow den and pirate ship. Each had cost hundreds of pounds.


I noticed there were whole days when the slide was hardly used. During one period of observation, I noted that not one child used the slide as was intended. Instead, the children used the enclosed part underneath as a den or hiding place, hung objects from the climbing ropes attached to it and threw toys up and down the slide.

One day the children made their own slide from a large cardboard box, which they flattened and placed on the grassy knoll. It was enormous fun (I know because I tried it) and the children played on it for hours, until it fell apart. On another occasion, the children threw buckets of water down the slide, then slid down it themselves, laughing as they got soaked.


The train is only used as a train if a practitioner sits on it and says something like 'I'm going on my holidays! Who wants to come?' Some kind-hearted children always indulge us for a few moments before gradually slipping away to do something more interesting. Its potential for imaginative play is limited. Once we have discussed our 'trip' and collected our tickets, there isn't a great deal left to do.

The children occasionally use it as an obstacle course, which requires a lot of adult help and organisation, as the children are happy to queue and play for hours - which explains why practitioners tend to steer clear of it.

Occasionally, we create a 'proper' obstacle course with balancing beams and springboards. Again, I often feel that the children are being kind by going along with our wishes to queue, balance and jump 'nicely', having seen the effort involved in setting up the equipment. However, before long they are gleefully running, jumping and rolling around elsewhere.

Willow den

While lovely at certain times of year, the den for much of the time sits rather bare and forlorn in the furthest corner of the playground. It, too, is mostly ignored unless a practitioner sets up a 'house' inside and offers passing friends cups of tea. The children will again indulge the practitioner for a short while, even occasionally entering into the spirit by providing 'cake'.

It is mostly the two-year-olds who join in, but they often look slightly baffled as the practitioner talks about what to watch on TV or to have for dinner.

Pirate ship

As with the train, children will follow if a practitioner sits in the pirate ship, and the talk again usually revolves around going on holiday or to the beach. Mostly, though, it is used to store larger items the children seem to enjoy leaving there, such as doll's prams.


Next, I turned my attention to what the children seemed to enjoy using, starting with the most popular items - the bikes.

Wheeled toys

The bikes are always in use, often with a list of 'who's next' attached to them. The children have responsibility over the timing device (a large sand-timer); they wait patiently and won't be deviated by any other tempting activity in case someone slips in ahead of them. The anxiety is almost palpable as they watch the lucky incumbents doing laps of the playground - and making all the accompanying noises.

A few prams are pushed around, filled with dolls or teddies if pushed by the girls, or full of cars, blocks, Sticklebricks or even other children if pushed by the boys.

Water resources

Both boys and girls love the large water receptacle with guttering and stands, though boys tend to outnumber girls and stay there longer.

I was gratified to see a large group of children pouring buckets of water down the guttering, watching the water as it went, then catching it again at the bottom. One boy fetched boats from the water tray indoors. Soon cars and balls were added and discarded or not, depending on their ability to float. The children were having enormous fun, getting soaked, stopping from their investigations occasionally to pour water down each other's backs or over each other's heads.

Again, this equipment requires a lot of adult attention - filling containers, ensuring co-operation, repositioning the guttering and so on - and might explain why it is less popular with practitioners and was used only twice (both times by me) in the first six weeks after it was bought.


The children love the crates and use them imaginatively and creatively. They are used as trampolines, seats, houses, kennels (some boys went through a 'we are dogs' phase!), TV sets, cots or places to hide or store items.


Digging for worms or other creatures is another huge draw, again mostly for the boys, though some of our less 'girly' girls will join in. The activity is best after it's been raining, so the children get very muddy.


The children just love washing things. They go off with their buckets filled with soapy water, squeezy sponges and cloths and will quite happily wash everything in sight. They even wash the large tyres that are dotted around the playground. Best of all, though, are the windows. The concentration is amazing, the co-operation is usually high and the attention to detail is spectacular.

I was delighted to hear on an early literacy course that squeezing sponges is great for muscle development in little hands, thus helping with pencil control later. Hurrah! So they are having fun, and learning as well.


Children like chalk, but it's a special favourite with practitioners as they can draw pictures or road maps for the children to follow on their bikes (and one or two of the children will, for about two minutes). The practitioners also like to write their own names on the ground or chalkboard, to the amusement of themselves mostly. The children have usually, once again, gone off to do their own thing.

Bats, balls and hoops

The bats, balls and hoops were a great success for the brief time they stayed in the playground. I bought spongy balls of different sizes, but the children could gouge holes in them very easily. The hoops are great for using like boomerangs and are very easy to get on to the roof.

Communication Friendly Spaces(tm)

Again, these are best used with an interested practitioner, with a few comfy cushions and mats scattered around. The children, especially the youngest, seem to like them.



We learned that children:

  • - just love being outdoors in all weathers
  • - don't require expensive equipment
  • - love smaller items that can be used for different purposes
  • - love things that they can upend, stack, fill, hide and drag or carry around
  • - like places and spaces to run, jump, roll, roam or just sit quietly
  • - like water and the freedom to explore it, even (or especially) if it means getting soaked
  • - like grass, soil and mud
  • - are fascinated by butterflies, spiders and flies, and worms send them into paroxysms of delight
  • - are interested by environmental noises like the sound of motorbikes, the bin lorry reversing and the hospital minibus beeping for the patients to come out
  • - like to watch the people passing on their way to the shops and listen to them talk or shout to each other
  • - like to see dogs and the occasional cat wandering along the street
  • - like practitioners who are interested in what interests them, who get alongside them and look at things from their point of view
  • - are unimpressed with those who try to commandeer them or tell them what to do and how to do it.
  • - will accommodate an adult's wishes, but their hearts won't really be in it and they will be itching to get away to have some real fun.



Communication Friendly Spaces (tm), www.elizabethjarmanltd.co.uk


Janice Ellis is an associate tutor (early years)

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