Enabling Environments: Outdoors - Come out to play

Boys were encouraged to discover new ways to play, learn and practise independence outdoors in a project described by Julie Mountain.

The revised Early Years Foundation Stage, with its emphasis on physical development and commitment to outdoor play, will again throw a spotlight on the need for outdoor provision to meet the learning needs of both boys and girls.

One project that has enabled settings to audit and transform their outdoor provision with lasting benefits is 'Boys and girls come out to play', a collaboration between Surrey County Council and Learning Through Landscapes (LTL).

The twin objectives of the project were to enrich the outdoor learning experiences of children, particularly boys, and provide practitioners working towards EYP status with a challenging and innovative study programme.

The 18-month-long scheme began with all the settings auditing their outdoor areas, using LTL's PlayOut Toolkit. Then regular site visits, by the LTL advisory team, were combined with twilight sessions in continuing professional development, held every half-term and planned around a particular theme. This arrangement gave practitioners the freedom to experiment with the 'theme' in their own settings and then share their experiences and observations at the following meeting.

To help them audit their provision, and later the impact of their changes, practitioners worked closely with a small group of boys in their setting and measured their provision against the Early Childhood Environments Ratings Scale (ECERS) and the Early Years Foundation Stage Profile points.

For the audit, the practitioners worked with a small group of boys and used various techniques to ascertain how the outdoor area was used and what the boys liked and disliked about it. This approach avoided adult assumptions about the space and presented a truer picture of how the children responded to the outdoors. For example, the practitioners:

  • used props, such as a familiar teddy bear, to tour the garden and encourage discussion
  • observed and tracked the boys' journeys around the space, the places they returned to, what they did in each area, how long they played with one space/resource and how absorbed they were in the activity
  • talked to the boys about the kinds of things they would like to do - rather than simple 'have' - outdoors
  • talked about whether and when they like to play alone or with friends
  • participated in child-directed play by facilitating storylines or providing access to resources when children wanted to extend their play.


Changes within the settings affected both the physical space and practice. One of the most popular was to create a 'transition area' to house such resources as seats and cushions, bookshelves, toys and games, musical instruments and mark-making facilities (whiteboards, chalks, rolls of wallpaper).

Popular too were:

  • installing permanent, accessible water play facilities such as hoses with sprayers, an outdoor tap and storage for the resources
  • zoning areas more clearly by, for example, marking out bays and routes for wheeled toys, to avoid exuberant play disturbing other children's engagement in quieter activities
  • promoting more types of physical play, using new or existing equipment - for example, marking the ground to encourage jumping, leaping, stepping, striding and tiny steps; providing large logs and pieces of loose material to encourage transporting, problem-solving and gross motor skill development; and providing den-building materials in easily accessible boxes.

Some settings installed a fully safety-glazed door to entice the children outdoors, and all-weather clothing and footwear were always easily accessible to children.

As for changes to practice and the type of activity on offer, these included:

  • introducing free-flow play, which vastly increased the amount of play space available to children at any one time and resulted in a quieter, calmer atmosphere indoors
  • reducing the number of bikes and trikes, so enabling all of them to be accessible at one time and freeing up storage space in the bikes shed
  • reading and acting out stories outdoors, then changing the endings and acting them out again
  • working on a larger scale - for example, making, feeling and tasting giant blocks of ice
  • making greater efforts to promote children's independence - for example, expecting children to take out and tidy up toys and to take their own name from the 'I am playing indoors' board to the 'I am playing outdoors' board
  • planning resourcing around themes, as practitioners came to realise the impossibility of trying to provide every outdoor resource outdoors every day
  • introducing risk and challenge and outdoor play policies
  • organising regular trips in the local area
  • developing parents' understanding of outdoor messy play and risk.


At the end of the programme, one practitioner commented, 'Because the boys now have more choice and freedom to move between spaces, they have developed greater independence and are calmer. They are using the outside in different ways, exploring different areas using all their senses rather than always racing around on bikes and scooters.'

Other comments from practitioners included:

  • The boys are happier and more confident outdoors
  • More boys are independently mark-making outdoors
  • Boys are more confident in leading play themes outdoors; they are engaging in activities for longer periods of time
  • Having new resources, such as a rope ladder, has challenged the physical development of all the children
  • Planting things in the garden involved boys in a long-term experience that took time to come to fruition.


Jack and Jill Nursery in Aldershot serves a fluctuating, socio-economically deprived community, which includes temporary residents as well as settled travellers. Boys attending the nursery spend long periods outdoors, though staff had noticed that they were primarily involved in physical play.

Manager Gillian Luck and her deputy Amanda Sherlock understood the boys' need to be outdoors but wanted to explore ways of encouraging other types of outdoor play.

The nursery secured funds to install a covered area, where the children could engage in either self-initiated play or in adult-led activities such as games and stories. An underused glade behind the shed was transformed into a cosy communication space with dappled shade and log seating, a pond was installed and the setting now grows, harvests and eats a variety of fruit and vegetable crops.

Many new ideas for mark-making and communication were identified through the audit process, such as:

  • making treasure maps for the nursery pirate ship, charts marked with 'X marks the spot' for children to use to navigate the outdoor area
  • attaching number plates to the wheeled vehicles
  • providing cafe order forms when a cafe was created in the outside play house
  • taping lining paper to an outdoor surface and providing large marker pens
  • providing sticks and wet sand, mud and paint for mark-making with sticks or using their fingers
  • offering jelly goo and spoons
  • offering 'squirters' made from washing-up liquid bottles. The children particularly enjoyed 'painting' with water on a paving slab at the front of the setting because of the sharp contrast in colour between the wet and dry areas.

Generally, the staff found that the bigger, messier and dirtier the mark-making activity, the more the boys were engaged.

The nursery team also bought a selection of books that they felt would appeal to the boys - stories about superheroes, aliens, monsters dinosaurs, bugs and how things work. These were placed inside and outside next to comfortable seating, in dens, the pirate ship, the 'glade' and the covered area.

While boys were attracted to the new books, staff recognised that reading indoors was an embedded habit for many of the boys, and that they would need to do more to make the outdoors an equally appealing place to read and talk.

Gillian and Amanda identified the need to change policies as well as practice over the course of the programme. They introduced an outdoor play policy and a risk and challenge policy, and began to include explicit mention of outdoor learning and play in their job descriptions and parent brochure. Such steps have embedded the value of outdoors into the philosophy of the setting.

In Jack and Jill's subsequent inspection report, Ofsted confirmed that children 'develop a wider vocabulary through exciting experiences such as playing in the castle or pirate ship, and these toys are particularly appealing to boys.'



  • LTL's PlayOut Toolkit provides step-by-step advice on how to audit, create and manage high-quality outdoor learning spaces for young children. See: www.ltl.org.uk
  • The 'project story' evaluation written by Gillian and Amanda for Jack and Jill Nursery (see box) can be viewed on the LTL website.

Julie Mountain is director of Play Learning Life. She can be contacted at: julie@playlearninglife.co.uk

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