Understanding Intentionality, Planning and Programming in Outdoor Play

Planning and programming for children’s outdoor play experiences involves intentionality. Intentionality in teaching refers to when one acts with knowledge and purpose to ensure that young children learn while they are playing outdoors and that they have optimal experiences that will support their development and later school success. According to Epstein (2007), intentional teaching does not happen by chance as it involves being planful, thoughtful and purposeful. Educators from Reggio Emilia speak to the environment as the third teacher. The outdoor environment is like the ultimate teacher. There are often times that programming isn’t necessary as the children will lead the play and an insightful early learning teacher will be able to seize the opportunity to support children’s learning. Other times, experiences may be planned as a way to support children’s exploratory options.   Early learning teachers often program according to outcomes. Whether responding to a spontaneous experience that emerges outdoors or planning something purposeful for children’s time in the outdoors, intentional teaching means to act with specific outcomes or goals in mind for all domains of children’s development and learning. Epstein (2007) refers to these as “academic” domains (literacy, mathematics, science, and social studies) as well as what have traditionally been considered early learning domains (social and emotional, cognitive, physical, and creative development). Learning to become an intentional teacher requires consideration of not only theory but how theory is applied as well as what happens in practice. Remembering to “tap” as an early learning teacher helps you to focus on these important aspects of teaching and learning. Click on each letter of the word TAP to reveal connections to this module and an educator’s role in intentionality, planning and programming for outdoor play.



T is for Theory. Bringing theory into your practice is key to developing programming that is intentional and planned while at the same time allowing for the emerging interests and ideas of the children.


A is for Application. How will you apply theory to practice? Thinking intentionally about theories requires you to consider their application to practice. When you plan experiences for children outdoors, what theories are evident?


P is for Practice. Theory and practice need to come together in early learning programs to increase effectiveness and to support the professional growth of children and educators.

Intentional teaching also involves being able to articulate to families, colleagues and administrators what is happening in the learning environment outdoors and indoors. If questions surface about practices, it is important to be able to communicate intentionality. What were your intentions when you set up a zip line for the children? Consider this photo and reflect on what this teacher’s reasoning might have been. Think about the previous modules. What type of play was she trying to encourage? What type of skills did she want children to develop from this experience?


Outdoor play and learning can be either spontaneous or planned. It always involves intentionality. For experiences to be authentic and meaningful, they emerge from the children’s interests.  This does not mean that the early learning teacher does not have a role. Outdoor play and learning is more than following the children’s lead. It involves a balanced approach that begins with an understanding of theory and application.