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How Children, Adults and Community Influence Outdoor Play

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Children are the primary focus of any early learning program, while adults are the pillars of the program (Dietze & Kashin, 2015).  The adults, including the early learning program staff and parents or guardians have an important role in having open communication about children’s life experiences and interests.  For example, think about the family that has just returned from a trip where the child has been on an airplane for the first time.  How might that life experience influence the child’s play?  What types of resources may be included in the environment to facilitate this type of play?  Or, think about communities that have fall fairs where children are involved in playing in corn fields or having opportunities to explore large pumpkins and hay bales.  How do those life experiences contribute to children’s learning and development?


Early learning teachers support children and their families in understanding and experiencing the benefits of outdoor play to learning and development.  As early learning teachers move forward to further advance children’s experiences outdoors, they listen to the children, support children’s ideas, and work with them to create the environment that reflects their voices and ideas for their play.

Children’s outdoor play experiences and environments are influenced by individual and family dispositions, community, culture and historical and current events.

Urie Bronfenbrenner (1979) developed the ecological theory of child development showing how children’s communities influence their development.  Bronfenbrenner used the word ecology to emphasize the importance of environmental influences, settings, and people in children’s lived experiences. This resonates particularly for early learning teachers supporting children in connecting their play and experiences to their surroundings. Bronfenbrenner (1979)

Bronfenbrenner identified that there are multiple ecologies within the five major systems, all of which have the potential to affect children’s development.

Click on each of the five systems listed below to learn more about how each relates to children and outdoor play.


(Rhodes, Theories of child development, 2013)

The microsystem refers to the setting where children live including their homes, the early learning program, and the neighbourhoods of the children’s homes and of the early learning program.  The microsystem has a direct relationship to children’s development and dispositions, as it encompasses the direct interactions, experiences, and influences within children’s daily living experiences.

How this relates to children’s outdoor play 
An early childhood teacher has a keen interest in children exploring the outdoors and she notes that particular children exhibit such intriguing play experiences when outdoors in all kinds of weather.  The teacher shares these stories with parents. This connectedness to outdoors is very important to the group of parents.  Daily, parents either ask the children about their outdoor play or engage in some outdoor play with them when they pick them up. One parent shares her child’s experience with a potential new parent for the program. The interactions and relationships among the children, teacher, families and potential parents become influencers for children in wanting to be outdoors, and developing communication skills and resiliency.

The mesosystem involves the relationship between the microsystems in the children’s lives.  This means that your family experience may influence your daily living experiences.

How this relates to children’s outdoor play
If children come from a family that has not valued outdoor play, and then the children are registered in an early learning program where outdoor play is viewed as valuable, the children may exhibit negative comments or ideas to other children about having to go outdoors.  These children may feel awkward running or jumping or climbing trees in the presence of their peers because they don’t have the same level of life experience as others.  The children may be negatively influenced by this throughout their life.

The exosystem and the mesosystem have less direct influence on children than the other systems.

The exosystem refers to the institutions or people who are not necessarily connected to the children but influence their life experiences.

How this relates to children’s outdoor play
Many provincial and territorial governments have guidelines related to the outdoor play component of early childhood programs.  For example, in Ontario, children attending approved early learning programs are required by law to spend a minimum of two hours per day outdoors, unless the weather conditions make it prohibitive.

Adults in the early learning program may make decisions about when children may or may not go outdoors such as on foggy, snowy or rainy days.  Such decisions can cause children and in some instances, colleagues conflict because they want to be outdoors in all kinds of weather.

The macrosystem refers to the beliefs and ideologies of families, communities and cultures.  Because of the various adults that interconnect with children, with differing values and perspectives, this layer has significant influence on children’s perspectives on outdoor play.

How this relates to children’s outdoor play
When children come to early learning programs, they bring experiences of their families and cultures of their family and community.  When families value outdoor play, curiosity and encourage risk taking, children are more likely to embrace outdoor play. Children that come from families that have less exposure to outdoor play and are concerned about children getting hurt or dirty, are more likely to, over time, negatively influence children’s desire to explore their natural surroundings.

The chronosystem refers to transitions and shifts in one’s life experience that may be influenced by past and present experiences.

How this relates to children’s outdoor play
Children whose life experiences have been primarily sedentary can experience a shift if families observe the pleasure that children acquire from outdoor play, and have a resulting shift in family perspective leading to adopting more active lifestyles.