Outdoors: Key 10 – Your best resource

Professor Jan White
Tuesday, September 27, 2022

How can leaders ensure that staff are supporting the setting’s outdoors provision to the best of their ability, asks Professor Jan White

Adults should enable interests and explorations without ‘interfering’ with them
Adults should enable interests and explorations without ‘interfering’ with them

Even the most extensive and well-provisioned outdoor environment will not be able to work well for young children without enabling adults who are well-supported, confident in their role and work effectively as a team.


Staff should be:

  • well deployed to cover all roles required
  • focused on supporting wellbeing, dispositions and life skills
  • getting involved in investigations and play
  • seeing observation and reflection as core roles


It can be difficult for staff to know what their role actually is outside. In seeking the most effective roles for adults to take outside, there are four strands to consider: thinking carefully about the purpose of provision outside; understanding how to harness the outdoors well as a learning environment; getting to grips with play being the mechanism for learning; and becoming committed to a child-driven, emergent curriculum.

Young children need adults who are attentively present in order to know that their safety and interests are being assured, so they feel secure enough to venture away from a safe base to explore the environment and become engaged in discovery and play. Research indicates that when involved in an experience, if the child is able to look up and quickly locate someone who is showing interest and ensuring their wellbeing, they are able to smoothly return attention to what they were doing. Involvement levels are higher since children are not distracted. In the larger, more complicated and less predictable outdoor environment, this is particularly important: providing the ‘exploration security’ that unlocks all that the outdoors has to offer.


A range of roles are required outside, and for a practitioner to get fully involved in particular children’s interests at any one moment, they need to know that supervisory and management roles are being covered by others. The team must therefore plan to cover these roles, but work together in responding to need at the time – good communication and teamwork are vital.

We should experiment with the range of roles we could take in interacting with our children’s explorations and play outdoors:

  • being visibly and attentively present – the Scandinavian ‘nearby, hands-in-pockets’ approach
  • being a ‘planted adult’ – choosing a good spot, such as in or near the sand pit, to just sit and join the conversation
  • being a genuinely involved ‘learning companion’ in investigations and experiments
  • joining children’s play when invited
  • carrying out adult-inspired or guided activity where it builds upon observed interests.

In all of these roles, we need to be highly sensitive and thoughtful. Even posture, body language and position can exert a surprising influence on children’s feelings.

The team should also give much thought to the intentions behind what your outdoor provision is seeking to do for your children. As shown in the case study, the shared mission and values underpinning your work as a setting and your overall goals for the children have to be held in mind all the time.

Getting to know your children in the provision you have made outside is central to being able to support them in the most valuable way. Although knowledge about the world outdoors can be very useful in bringing children’s interests to new things, one of the best roles to take outdoors is as a less knowledgeable ‘learning companion’ during investigations, so that adult and children share genuine and sustained interest. Companionable learning is a great way to encourage conversation, and an excellent way of uncovering the child’s own self-driven ‘curriculum’ rather than trying to ‘cover’ an external curriculum framework.

Observation and interpretation should be seen as key roles outdoors. Children show different competencies outdoors. So observations made during outdoor play are just as important as those made indoors, and should be shared with parents.


Things to consider, discuss and evaluate

  • Are all staff feeling comfortable, confident and capable about their role outside? What could be done to improve this?
  • Is the team well deployed to cover all the roles required outside but able to respond flexibly – including getting involved in investigations and play when this would be valuable?
  • Is the outdoors well understood as a learning environment, where observations and interpretations are equally important to those made indoors for responding to each child individually?

Things to explore and read

  • ‘Adults Are Essential: The roles of adults outdoors’ by Tim Waller in Outdoor Provision in the Early Years, edited by Jan White (2011, Sage).
  • ‘The adult’s role before, during and after outdoor play’ in Playing Outside: Activities, ideas and inspiration for the early years by Helen Bilton (2nd edn., 2014, Routledge).
  • ‘Supporting “Child-initiated” Activity in the Outdoor Environment’ by Trisha Maynard in Exploring Outdoor Play in the Early Years, edited by Trisha Maynard and Jane Waters (2014, Open University Press).
  • Interacting or Interfering? Improving interactions in the early yearsby Julie Fisher (2016, Open University Press).

Things to do

  • Notice the difference in what you find out about a child when outdoors as compared to what you have learned about them indoors. Some children are very different when outdoors, behaving differently and showing different interests, skills and competencies.
  • For one day, pay close attention to how well your position and actions are enabling children’s engagement and deep involvement. How well are your body language and interactions empowering them to follow and develop their own interests?
  • Rather than continually moving around the outdoor space, experiment with sitting in one place for a period of time being attentively present and available. What difference does this make to how you act as an educator and does it change how children relate to you? 

    Professor Jan White is author of several books on outdoor provision and practice and co-director of the specialist training company Outdoors Thinking

CASE STUDY: Beatle Woods Outdoor Nursery, Balsall Common, West Midlands

‘Our setting is totally outdoors, and everything happens in the moment here. We believe that unstructured time supports children to make their own decisions and helps them to develop a real sense of agency and autonomy. Children’s engagement levels are high, as practitioners always “facilitate” rather than “direct” play: our teams are true co-players and adventurers. Children develop the confidence and resilience to attempt new things because they feel valued and trusted by the adults around them, and it is clearly evident that there are high levels of wellbeing for both adults and children.

‘So how does this actually happen? Along with a high ratio of adults to children (maximum 1:4 for 2- to 5-year-olds), all our practitioners have a clear understanding of our values, vision and pedagogical approach and how being immersed in nature supports holistic child development. We are careful not to interfere in play; we wait to be invited in and have respect for children’s voices and choices.

‘There is a commonality of approach and a culture of reflective practice that ensures consistency in the role of each adult and ultimately means they feel confident and enabled to provide the appropriate conditions for children to thrive. All team members have time to observe children at play. They remain “present” and accessible, but do not intrude.’

Rachel Webb, co-founder and manager of Beatle Woods Outdoor Nursery


Download Now

Nursery World Print & Website

  • Latest print issues
  • Latest online articles
  • Archive of more than 35,000 articles
  • Free monthly activity poster
  • Themed supplements

From £11 / month


Nursery World Digital Membership

  • Latest digital issues
  • Latest online articles
  • Archive of more than 35,000 articles
  • Themed supplements

From £11 / month


© MA Education 2024. Published by MA Education Limited, St Jude's Church, Dulwich Road, Herne Hill, London SE24 0PB, a company registered in England and Wales no. 04002826. MA Education is part of the Mark Allen Group. – All Rights Reserved