Responsive Outdoor Play Environments

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course11-lesson1-topic1-photo3Early learning teachers play an important role in creating inclusive and responsive outdoor learning environments that support and benefit all children and their families.  Central to responsive environments is how early learning teachers observe and respond to how they influence and support children’s play and curiosity. The way in which children feel in the space affects how they engage in experiences, the physical sensations and how they process sounds, smells and tastes. The feeling tone of the space and people in the space interact with how children filter experiences as pleasant, unpleasant or neutral experiences (Dietze, 2006).  The outdoor experiences and the relationships nurture children’s desire to explore and experiment which correlates with their sense of worth and self esteem.

The design of the space has a major influence on how children respond to it.  As cited by Acar (2013), Elizabeth Jones (1997) suggested that responsive environments ensure that the design elements of space be classified under the following design requirements:

  • Accessible-Inaccessible
  • Active-Passive
  • Challenge/Risk-Repetition/Security
  • Hard-Soft
  • Natural/People-Built
  • Open-Closed
  • Permanence-Change
  • Private-Public
  • Simple-Complex

These design elements become a starting point in examining the outdoor play space offered to children.  By using these elements in discussions with children, some interesting ideas about their outdoor play space may surface.

Dietze (2006) and Dietze & Kashin (2016) identified nine key design features for the creation of responsive outdoor play environments for children. Click on each of the boxes below the graphic to read what each means from a design perspective. course9-graphic5

Green space

Green space:  Provides children with an opportunity to engage in a quiet and serene experience or active play.  Green space has a profound influence on children regaining calmness and rejuvenating their emotional feelings and abilities to be resilient to the space, people and experiences within the environment. Green space contributes to children’s social and psychological well-being.  Ideally, green spaces provide children with opportunities to interact with nature and natural materials within the environment. Green space, if presented with attention to the aesthetics contributes to children’s sense of wonderment, curiosity, and new play options.

Quiet places

Quiet places:  Provide children with a place to pause, reflect, think about, connect and reconnect with children and adults, and rejuvenate their level of energy and self-regulation skills. Outdoor quiet spaces are positioned in places where children may observe other children playing. Quiet places accommodate two to four children for quiet play explorations.

Active places

Active places: Provide children with places to connect their play ideas and interests with others.  If the active space is large enough, children will come together to determine what they wish to play, how they will determine the roles of the players, and how the play will be executed.  The active play space requires materials and space that will attract children to connect, network, examine ideas, and engage in group play. Because active play generally attracts two or more children, this space is intended to support large-body play with noise and exuberant behaviours.

Small group places

Small group places: Are designed to provide groups of children with places to explore defined experiences such as experiential projects or literacy options such as reading books.  Early learning teachers place new materials within the space as a way to trigger conversations and exploration among children as a way to discover options and generate ideas.  Small group places offer children a sense of security and belonging.

Large group places

Large group places: Are available for children and adults to come together to engage in dialogue about new materials, ideas, or projects.  As well, the large group places are designed to support a variety of play options such as dramatic play, loose parts construction and active play ideas such as obstacle courses.

Flexible zones

Flexible zones: Are designed to support children in using the same space in different ways and for different purposes, depending on space needs for their play experiences. The materials and equipment within these zones are movable and adaptable to accommodate a variety of play options. Unique materials are often placed in flexible zones as a way to spark children’s curiosity.

Circulation patterns

Circulation patterns: Provide children with opportunities to move around the outdoor play environment without purposely disrupting other children. Circulation patterns are most effective when there are wide passages so that children may move their bodies and the resources necessary for their play.  They also are designed to provide spaces for children to pause along the path to think, observe, wonder, and reflect upon experiences or opportunities.

Spatial partitioning

Spatial partitioning:  This concept refers to defining outdoor play spaces for children that are intended for a particular use.  Children learn about boundaries by understanding the depth and breadth of the space and how it may be used.


Balance:  Refers to the contrasts between their elements.  Children and adults determine places, spaces, and strategies about where materials and resources are placed within the environment.  Materials and resources are placed according to characteristics such as height, weight, width; combinations of thin and wide materials, or hard and soft materials can provide intrigue and broad thinking options with children.

Affinity spaces

Affinity spaces: Are provided as a place to promote informal learning cultures and participatory learning whereby children are able to “play out” their play ideas (Jenkins, Clinton, Purushotma, Robison, and Weigel, 2006).  Children may experiment, innovate and explore temporary interests.  Outdoor play affinity spaces are used by children in an array of play experiences such as performing, putting things together and taking them apart, networking with small groups of peers or exploring an idea with other children and adults.  These spaces differ from other areas of the outdoor play environment because children come to them in small groups when they have a clearly defined idea that they wish to pursue.