Key Elements for Consideration of Planning Outdoor Play Environments

Topic Progress:

childtireResearch continues to identify the importance of quality outdoor play spaces being developed or rejuvenated to incorporate natural elements into them (Dietze & Kim, 2014; Herrington, Lesmeister, Nicholls, & Stefiuk, 2010). The views and values that adults place on outdoor play must be clearly articulated as the outdoor design generally reflects adults’ perspectives. Early learning teachers are concerned about how the outdoor play is organized because it affects children’s play options, depth of play and behaviours exhibited. The more options children have to access inspiring outdoor play space, the more they will want to explore and engage in play outdoors.

Well-designed outdoor play spaces ensure that there are places for children to feel comfortable playing collectively or independently and that the space design and aesthetics include cozy spots, open space and opportunities to discover natural environmental attributes.

Ideally, outdoor play spaces are designed in ways that provide children with opportunities to be free to explore and feel comfortable within the space.  Adults consider environmental aesthetics as they incorporate a combination of fluid materials such as loose parts and structured materials within it to reflect children’s interests and opportunities. Click on each word below to acquire further information on these concepts.

Outdoor environmental aesthetics

Refers to how children experience their outdoor environment through their senses. The environmental aesthetics include seasonal and natural materials, and cultural items that represent children’s daily living experiences (Dietze & Kashin, 2012).

Fluid materials

Materials that change in shape or by their use.  Children may use them individually or together.  Examples of fluid materials include sand, water, paint, blocks and sticks.

Structured materials

Materials that have predetermined characteristics that influence how the materials are used such as climbing apparatus.

Natural play spaces

Natural play spaces provide children with play zones that combine natural areas, locally appropriate plants, and environmental features such as slopes and surfaces that trigger children’s interest in exploring the characteristics and wonderment of the natural world.  Natural play spaces offer children unstructured spaces and materials that contribute to triggering spontaneous play and enhancing their connectedness with the outdoor environment. There are active spaces, reflective spaces, creative spaces and wonderment spaces (Dietze & Kim, 2014).

Natural play spaces:

  • Encourage children to use the elements in the environment for differing play episodes.
  • Offer children of all ages, abilities and interests opportunities to participate in play.
  • Promote differing types of active, connected play that contribute to children’s overall development.

Natural play spaces offer children options for a variety of experiences. View the PowerPoint to gain further information on the types of experiences that natural play spaces offer children.


In addition to the characteristics of a natural play space and environmental aesthetics, early learning teachers consider each of the components illustrated in the graphic below.  Click on the words below to gain information on each recommended consideration.


Variety of experiences

Children require play spaces that promote a variety of experiences that support them in exploring and experiencing new, innovative options in their play.  Children’s play becomes more intense and interconnected when they are able to create play in outdoor environments that have a combination of materials that are aesthetically presented.  Children benefit from experiences that include exposure to water, sand, loose parts, things that move and can be reconfigured, and items that allow children to design, construct, and take them apart.

Freedom to play

Children that have the time and freedom to use the materials in the outdoor environment are in a position to create play experiences that push them to try ideas, refine ideas, and think through how they might approach an idea in a different way to achieve the results that they are attempting to achieve. Ideally, the environment is designed so that children have the freedom to fully engage with other children or explore their play ideas individually.  There are places for active and quiet exploration, discovery, reflection and idea building.

Inclusive practice

Play spaces, materials, and equipment offer all children, no matter what their skills and abilities are, the opportunities to participate independently, without adult intervention.    Inclusive outdoor play spaces are essential in promoting social justice principles for all. Inclusive play spaces address environmental conditions such as ensuring there are pathways and ramps that allow children with assistive devices to move freely in the space.  Children requiring sensory considerations benefit from spaces offering a variety of senses, such as fragrant gardens and textured surfaces to support the sensory experiences.  Sandpits, water spaces, mazes and greenery in gardens provide opportunities for children to engage in social play or move from larger groups to play by themselves, without feeling isolated from the group.

Rich in exploration

Children benefit from outdoor environments that are rich in exploration, role modeling and offer unique materials that trigger different types of play. Outdoor environments with many types of materials that are intriguing, challenging, and versatile, increase children’s options for exploration and learning.  Early learning teachers observe the children’s level of exploration and use probing questions, ideas, and documentation to support them in reflecting upon and adding to their experiences in similar and different ways.

Interaction among adults and children

Interaction among adults and children during outdoor play experiences increases children’s ideas and desire to try new options. Exposing children to adults with unique talents, such as artists, bakers, wood carvers supports children in becoming intrigued with trying new ideas, while understanding people and cultures from their communities.

Outdoor play spaces follow children’s interests

Outdoor play spaces follow children’s interests and daily living experiences.  The materials, space, and environmental stewardship support children in thinking about the “what if” and “how” opportunities that may be possible within the space.

Safe, while offering risks

Children require environments that encourage children to take risks.  Adventure play contributes to children learning about their space, place, and world around them.  Outdoor environments that offer risk and adventure exploration options increase children’s opportunities to test out ideas and determine what is and is not possible. Outdoor play that offers challenge and risk increases children’s familiarity with making mistakes and discovering how outdoor play can contribute to their problem solving and creative thinking experiences.


Outdoor play spaces are designed to offer children opportunities to develop resiliency.  The materials within the space are positioned to provide a flow to the space and to reduce crowding so that aggressive behaviour is reduced.  The open-ended resources within the open space encourage children to try new ideas; this promotes resiliency in dealing with the planned and unexpected situations that they experience, such as falling or getting muddy.