Strategies for Enhancing Outdoor Play Space

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We offer you strategies for enhancing the outdoor play space that will ultimately support children in having vibrant, intriguing outdoor play spaces.  Each strategy has an audio clip of the story from an educator that has used the strategy.  Click on the audio button to hear the story.

Strategy 1:  Develop a process with the children to identify how to maintain the outdoor play space.

Most of our early learning teachers believe that children should have flexible, fluid space. Although these are important principles, we often struggle with the maintenance of the outdoor play space. We have observed that many children do not respond well when the outdoor space is cluttered or that there are broken parts to the loose parts. We decided that we would begin to have conversations with the children about how we can maintain the outdoor environment so that they want to play there.  We also wanted to model the importance of us all caring for our environments and the items within the environments. We started our conversations by asking the children about how they might contribute to maintaining the environment. We recorded their answers.  We asked them what their responsibility could be for the gardens, garden boxes, and flower pots. Then, we asked if we had volunteers to help us gather the pinecones and manage the leaves and weeds. Since those discussions, the children have developed work buddies.  Every morning as we go outdoors, they decide who the work buddies will be for the day.  The children determine the teachers that will be part of the work buddy team.

Strategy 2: Develop ways to create child friendly space and storage for outdoor play materials.

We recognize the importance of outdoor play spaces being designed to have a variety of storage that is child friendly and accessible. Our outdoor play space has a shed for the materials and if you were to open it, you would see that it is a disaster.  Many of the materials are broken, some are extremely dirty and others are things with limited play value. At our past staff meeting we had discussions on the state of the shed and how it impacted the design features that we could extend to the children. We were almost embarrassed to even allow the children to see the shed and through our discussions recognized that its state influenced what we put in the environment.  We noted that very few materials or the spaces within the environment were intriguing.  We didn’t have materials that would trigger children’s curiosity. We didn’t have any plants in the space.  We had pea gravel. We decided that we would bring in pots with tall grass in them to see how the children reacted.  The play was amazing! Then we asked the children if they would like to clean the storage shed with us and determine what we would save and what we would discard.  We asked them to make a list of what criteria they would use to determine if we would keep the material, re-purpose it or discard it.  After we cleaned the storage space, we worked with the children to redevelop it. We believe this was one of the best ways to role model with the children the importance of caring for our space and place.    

Strategy 3: Develop strategies to ensure that the outdoor play design meets the developmental needs of children.

Today we were discussing ways in which we could incorporate a place for more active play.  We have at least three children that always want to be climbing or balancing or going quickly on their trikes. We decided that we would rope off an area in the upper part of the playground for that activity.  We were really excited to do this as we were convinced that it would support the more active children. One day went by, a second day went, and a third day went by without the children using the space. The next day I decided that I would remove the rope and leave it at the entry of the outdoor play space to see what and how the children would use it. I placed a note with it asking if children have a special spot that they would like to play today. The children determined when, where and how to use the rope. I was reminded that as adults, we need to step back and let the children design their space.  Observe what the children do and assist them as required. 

Strategy 4: Develop outdoor play spaces with purpose.

We are very concerned about what our outdoor play space communicates to the children and families. It has only been in the past three months that we have embraced a more active outdoor portion to our early learning program.  When we examined our space last week, we noted that much of the equipment is old and tired. Some of the materials we found at garage sales and with little connections to what children are currently interested in. We often leave materials outdoors for the next day, without due care. We have a mud pit but there is no water or living plants nearby that could trigger children’s sense of imagination. The grass is all trampled and the gardens on both the inside and outside of the fence are full of weeds. When we think of design principles and play spaces that communicate a positive message about outdoor play, we have opportunities for further development. Our challenge going forward is to determine how to reconfigure the space to ensure that we communicate the importance of it being child-centred and built on the principles of environmental sustainability, ecology, and locally appropriate in values and cultures. How do we bring the beauty, aesthetics, play value, and intrigue to the space?

Strategy 5:  Understanding the importance of outdoor space, place and children in supporting peers and diversity in ideas, learning and development.

We have been examining ways to change our space to bring more opportunities for exploration and discovery into the environment. We have a fishing boat that a dad gave us.  We have been somewhat reluctant to put it in the space because we don’t think the children will have the motor skills to get in and out of it and we don’t want to be doing that. Marie, my colleague, convinced us to put it out last week. So today the children became intrigued with the boat. They used various parts of their bodies to get in and out of it.  There was water in the bottom of the boat and the children of course, splashed each other. After most of the children left the boat area, Sara and Josh got into the boat. Josh, just having had his fourth birthday has been with us for more than six months. He has been diagnosed with autism spectrum disorders (ASD). We have worked with him in supporting his social play. Today, while in the boat he verbalized the word “fun” to Sara. This was the first verbalization that we have heard from Josh. This was so exciting for us.  It reinforced the importance of designing outdoor play spaces that have appropriate levels of challenge, and places for children to pause, observe, and reflect upon ideas that support their social and psychological needs. Children with ASD tend to make more connections to the environment and the people in the environment when they can freely choose activities that connect them to nature and children with similar interests.