Engaging Families in Supporting Children’s Dispositions and Learning Outdoors

Topic Progress:

Children have complex lives. Children in early learning programs have a minimum of two lives; that of their family and community, and that of their early learning program.  Early learning programs partner with families. Families benefit from programs that have early learning teachers who have clearly examined their philosophy and ideals about outdoor play and family engagement. Family engagement and family involvement are not the same.  How does family engagement differ from family involvement? 

Click below to view the differences.

Family Involvement

Family involvement refers to those activities that parents are invited to participate in that support the early learning setting’s agenda and what the educator deems as important (Pushor, 2007).

Family Engagement

Family engagement refers to activities that are mutually determined to be important for children to experience by the families and the early learning program and are implemented in partnership (Pushor, 2007).

The key assumptions that are incorporated into a family engagement model and that support children’s outdoor play are:

  • Dialogue about outdoor play leads to greater connections of outdoor play experiences and children’s zest for curiosity and learning.
  • Encouraging families to participate in dialogue about outdoor play results in an opportunity to diversify experiences that children engage in.
  • Outdoor play experiences are influenced by feedback, input, and questions from adults and children.
  • Families should have input into outdoor play experiences and programming that affect their children and family values.

Family engagement requires significant dialogue among the adults and children in the family and the early learning teachers.  In column one in the table below, Pushor (2007) identifies four core questions that early learning teachers ask and analyze in supporting families.  In column two, we have identified how Pushor’s questions would be expanded to focus on family engagement related to outdoor play.

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Questions that provide insight into family engagement Questions that provide insight into family engagement specific to outdoor play
What do you believe about the place and voice of parents in our school? What do you believe about the place and voice of parents related to our outdoor play program?  What happens if our philosophies differ?
How can we see our beliefs being lived out? How can we share our ideas and then collaborate on having our beliefs, values and life experiences about outdoor play be actualized?
Is there a match between what we say we believe and the practices we have in place? How do we engage parents, children and colleagues in our collective ideas and practices about outdoor play?
What unconscious or implicit assumptions may be at play in our practices? What unconscious or implicit assumptions may be at play in our outdoor play practices?

Clarkin-Phillips and Carr (2012) indicate that there are three levels of networking that support opportunities for parent engagement.  These three levels of networking have a strong connection to supporting families in understanding the importance of outdoor play for child development and why role modelling the importance of outdoor play as a family influences children’s dispositions and abilities to manage in various settings.

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Level Strategies
Opportunities are available Verbally, families are given the opportunity to observe and participate with children in their outdoor projects and experiences.  Although families recognize this opportunity, due to competing pressures, families are not able to take the time to engage in children’s outdoor play during the early learning program.
Early learning teachers begin conversations with the children and parents about what the children did during outdoor play.
Inviting Families are consistently invited to view the children during the outdoor play.  Families spend time with the children outdoors when they pick up or drop off children to the centre.
Early learning teachers provide a number of options that will support families in gaining comfort in becoming active in children’s outdoor play such as having children and families provide materials for the outdoor environment.
Early learning teachers discuss with the families how the outdoor play experiences support aspects of children’s learning and development.
Personalizing Personal invitations to families are made.  The opportunity to view and engage in children’s outdoor play are available, invited and personalized.  Early learning teachers and/or children use the relationship among the families, children and teachers to share core outdoor play experiences with families.
Early learning teachers seek out learning about the strengths, skills and opportunities that a family may bring to the outdoor play experiences.
Continuous communication about outdoor play occurs through a variety of strategies such as pedagogical documentation, children’s portfolios, audiotapes of children engaged in outdoor play.
The teacher, children and families collectively engage in outdoor play projects.

Adapted from Clarkin-Phillips & Carr, 2012

When early learning teachers and families build a respectful, caring environment, discussions can occur about how outdoor play is a better experience for later academic performance than cognitively based activities that generally take place indoors.  Teachers and families can explore the negative consequences on children’s dispositions and learning when children are pressured to engage in activities that are structured, teacher-led and practiced.  For example, when children are required to produce particular artwork or crafts, this has the potential to undermine children’s disposition for art.  Similarly, if children are discouraged from climbing trees or going to the top of the climber, their disposition for active engagement, healthy body play and using their bodies in various ways will be hampered.  When children are required to engage in experiences dictated by adults, there are many instances when this causes children to feel incompetent. If this feeling of incompetence becomes a pattern, behaviours may also surface illustrating signs of low self-esteem.

Families and early learning teachers benefit from reflecting upon the following:

  • If you assume that children have innate intellectual dispositions such as curiosity and creativity, what experiences, knowledge development, skills and dispositions do you wish them to be exposed to during outdoor play?
  • If we assume that children develop in outdoor play environments that encourage them to explore and discover how to do things, what things are, and how things can be used, how can we encourage this growth by asking the right types of thought provoking questions such as What do you think this can be used for and why? What do you think makes this material be able to do this action?  How did you do that from beginning to end? 
  • If you have a desire to strengthen children’s dispositions surrounding outdoor play, how and what would you role model to them? Why would those role modelling actions be important?
  • If you believe that children need the power to make decisions about what they engage in outdoors, how are you going to honour that? How do you manage your feelings and perspectives if they differ from the children’s?

Children require outdoor play options that provide them with opportunities to work together on projects and have experiences that help them understand their environment and experiences.  Think about how early learning teachers and families can contribute to strengthening children’s dispositions in observing, experimenting, inquiring, wondering, and experiencing the “what is” and “what if” scenarios.  Click on each of the words below to learn more.



Infants require environments that have sensory stimulation and physical opportunities. Include stimulating materials for children to explore from horizontal and vertical positions for reaching, crawling and stretching. They benefit from grasses and leaves, mobiles and plants that attract butterflies and birds. Ramps support children in mobilizing their bodies and exploring what happens when they have things roll or fall.



Toddlers require places and spaces for having success in experiencing movements such as up and over, down and under, inside and outside. Toddlers require places to climb, run, roll and build.  Natural materials such as water, sand, leaves, pine cones, puddles and grasses provide toddlers with positive options for success.


Preschool Children

Preschool children require outdoor play space that supports their need for running, climbing, hopping, jumping, and sliding. Space for using trikes, wagons, wheelbarrows, hills, paths and spaces for sociodramatic play are necessary. Sand and water play provide options for preschoolers to exercise their ability to construct, rework and use creativity in their play.


School Age

Provision for group games and activities such as a basketball hoop, hopscotch, and dramatic play supports children’s options to express positive dispositions. Engaging in wooded areas offers significant opportunities for children to express their connections with environment and nature.

Effective adults that play a role in children’s lives recognize the importance of developing environments and having interactions that will role model and strengthen the desirable dispositions of children (Da Ros-Voseles & Fowler-Haughey, 2007).  The actions, attitudes and levels of curiosity exhibited by adults have a direct correlation to the types of dispositions children develop.