Enabling Environments: Outdoors - Wild at heart

Claire Warden
Tuesday, July 20, 2010

The endless potential for learning through play that the natural environment offers to young children is observed by 'nature kindergarten' provider Claire Warden.

When given the opportunity, children physically demonstrate preference, and enjoy playing in natural environments and/or with natural elements (Hart 1979; Moore 1986; Chawla 2002; Heerwagen and Orians 2002; Burke 2005). The wealth of research shows that they do so because of the overwhelming play potential of such spaces - the possibilities of now and the promise of more to come (Cobb 1977).

The concept of 'affordances' (Gibson 1979) refers to what the environment offers, what it provides for the child. Affordances are opportunities that arise from the interaction between the physical properties of the environment and the interests, ideas and intent of the individual.

If the physical environment is over-designed and organised, it limits the very play it is trying to encourage. Affordances arise through active detection, where the person is both sensing and moving, observing and acting at the same time.


Applying the concept of affordance to children's play in natural environments has a number of points to reflect upon:

  • Affordances are unique to the individual playing child, or group of children, and are to some extent unpredictable. Children play in an environment and have an effect on it, while at the same point, the environment is affecting the child.
  • Affordances are highly dynamic, with different features, elements and materials affording different play experiences for different individuals on different occasions. Every day is different; the moisture, temperature, light, movement in natural spaces is changing constantly, stimulating new ideas and perspectives.
  • The number of affordances increases with the complexity of the environment. As highly complex environments, natural spaces provide limitless play affordances. Children who play in nature are imaginative because the stimulation is constantly stimulating the brain.
  • Combinations of affordances allow individual or group play lines to develop naturally. Children can attach a joint meaning to a moment or indeed an object; they can hold it, which is a fishing rod to one and a giraffe neck to another.
  • Natural environments afford children with coherent opportunities to play with feelings and emotions. Through playing in wild natural spaces, children can encounter and experience fear, disgust, disappointment and anger as well as delight, fascination, satisfaction and contentment within a protected world of play-based activity (Lester and Russell 2007).


Ward (1988) uses the example of trees to offer a large number of potential play affordances:

Trees can be climbed and hidden behind; they can become forts or bases; with their surrounding vegetation and roots, they become dens and little houses; they provide shelter, landmarks and privacy; fallen, they become part of an obstacle course or material for den building; near them you find birds, little animals, conkers, fallen leaves, mud, fir cones and winged seeds; they provide a suitable backdrop for every conceivable game of the imagination (Ward 1988).

Furthermore, natural environments containing many different species will extend the affordances of that space. For example, different trees drop their leaves at different times, produce different types of fruits and seeds, and their roots, trunks and branches grow in different ways. The bark and the very essence of trees is so very different.

I am reminded of a little boy who told me that every tree has a different song. What he had discovered was that his stick created a new sound according to the tree species, its size and age (growth rate). At two years old, he had limited formal language that would explain the different growth rates of species and the effect of climate or that the xylem and phloem inside the tree were acting as resonance tubes. But he did intuitively understand and demonstrate in his play, that they were all different because of what lay inside.

To design naturalistic playscapes requires a real understanding of what it is that motivates children. Stuart Lester's work (2006) suggests that children are naturally good at finding affordances; they are 'affordance connoisseurs', and through playing outdoors seek to maximise affordances, creating playful problems for themselves.

Our Nature Kindergartens, whether on a beach, in a meadow or in a forest, all make use of the idea of natural materials to allow the maximum amount of play affordances. The following case study is a wonderful example of practitioners understanding play affordances while also considering the delicate nature of play and their role within it.


During a study visit to a Wald Kindergarten in Germany, we were able to experience the same transformational play we observe when our children spend long uninterrupted periods of time in the woodlands of our Scottish Kindergartens.

A group of children were adding an extension to a boat they had been working on in previous visits to the woodland space. During the selecting and adding specially chosen bits of wood, the boat became a spaceship. One five-year-old found a shaped piece of wood that was then used as a drill, the nozzle for the petrol pump and a laser gun.

He wandered away looking for a seat for the spaceship and came back with a large piece of wood and proudly announced, 'This is for me to hang my clothes on, my hat goes there and my coat on this hook'.

A friend commented that it looked like a giraffe; he created a tail for it using pine needles, pretended to feed it leaves and then ride on it. A three-year-old girl was invited to have a ride and she announced that it was a very good horse!

When it was time to go back to the centre, the boy wanted to take his giraffe with him. The ethos of the Kindergarten allowed children this choice, and it was his responsibility to get it back to the centre.

He started off pulling it along behind him and when he got tired, a friend offered to help him carry it. The staff supported them verbally as appropriate, did not rush them but also did not make any suggestions to ease the task, such as using a rope to pull it along. They felt that the children knew where the ropes were and would come to that conclusion themselves when they were ready!

After ten minutes the boy stopped, told the adult that he needed a rope, tied the rope to the giraffe and dragged it behind him. As the energy required to pull it was so much less, he was soon able to run ahead of the group. A little girl sat on the piece of wood and it was transformed into a sledge, easily pulled over the icy ground.

On arrival at the centre, the little boy removed the rope, placed the piece of wood next to the door and proudly announced, 'This is my coat rack and this is where I put my hat and this is the hook for my coat'.

Play provides the opportunity for flexibility and variation that is full of boundless possibilities. These examples of transformational play give us a window into the journeys of thinking that children are on through time and space.

This is an edited extract from 'Nature Kindergartens' by Claire Warden



Nature Kindergartens - Exploring Naturalistic Learning within Nature Kindergartens and Forest Schools by Claire Warden (Mindstretchers, £30) encourages early years practitioners to open their minds to the potential for learning within natural environments, to listen to the child with all their senses, and to trust the child to lead the explorations outdoors.

Chapter themes include children as capable, competent learners; a sense of belonging; trust and democracy; creativity; transitions; risk, and access to the 'wild'.

Claire Warden is owner of Whistlebrae Nature Kindergarten and Auchlone Nature Kindergarten in Perth and Kinross, Scotland, an educational consultant and owner of training and resource company Mindstretchers. For more information and to buy the book, visit: www.mindstretchers.co.uk


  • Landscapes with high play affordance offer the greatest learning potential
  • Nature-based landscapes are more environmentally friendly and sustainable than those that are cluttered by plastic. closed materials
  • The majority of children have a natural ability to understand the nature of open play and the play affordances it gives

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