Child development and the importance of outdoor play

Children develop socially, intellectually, physically and emotionally in every aspect of their lives. It is axiomatic for early years practitioners and other professionals that play is a powerful medium for developing and expressing self-awareness, social learning, imagination, awareness of the world and physical skills. Play is, as Janet Moyles expresses it, a natural tool for learning, fun and a powerful motivator.4 For Moyles, the key element in play is children’s ownership of their actions and, indeed, independent activity is, to some degree, central to most definitions of play. Other important and frequently cited features of ‘real’ play include enjoyment, spontaneity, involvement, persistence and concentration. Play cannot be taught, although it may be modelled by others, and it cannot be imposed, as Miss Haversham found in Dickens’ Great Expectations.

Almost all situations provide some opportunities for play. It has, however, been shown that for some children there is a fundamental difference between their behaviour and preferences inside and their outdoor play, even in the context of nurseries and playgroups where there are usually rich opportunities for indoor play. The literature suggests that outdoor play may be particularly liberating for less advantaged children and for boys, who may find a greater freedom to talk, to develop dramatic scenarios, to organize cooperative play and to engage in vigorous, sometimes noisy, physical activity without inhibition.5

Differences also exist between the relatively highly structured and supervised activities of groups in the outdoor areas of nurseries and primary schools and the generally more open – ended, less structured opportunities provided by public parks, playgrounds and recreation areas. Here, the extent of supervision by carers varies considerably and children may consequently have a greater or lesser degree of freedom to do as they choose, explore and experiment. Public playgrounds invariably provide large fixed play equipment, that is immovable and cannot readily cater for different or changing needs. The onus is, then, on the children to make the best of what is provided, sometimes in ways that are unintended. As often as not, for example, we see children attempting to climb up a slide rather than descending in conventional fashion, deliberately colliding with others, or testing the speed at which various objects will slide down the chute. Older youths may even attempt to ride their bicycles up the slide. It can be persuasively argued that children playing in this fashion are exercising more imagination and initiative – and hence learning more – than the solitary individual being pushed on a swing. Indeed, one of the paradoxes about the notion of safe play is that equipment that provides insufficient challenge for the target age-group is more likely to be misused, often in a hazardous manner.

Traditionally, fixed play apparatus has been designed with an emphasis on developing physical skill and gross movement, especially climbing, balancing and swinging. In some circumstances this tends to encourage competitive rather than cooperative behaviour, creating a play environment that can be intimidatory for younger children and especially for those with a variety of impairments. At worst, such equipment provides few, if any opportunities for modification or for utilizing the apparatus in different ways. Sand and water play are obvious exceptions, but climatic conditions in Britain are not favourable, and there is only limited provision in public parks. Some conventional play apparatus, see-saws for example, require interaction and cooperative behaviour – these are the beneficial exceptions.

Fixed play apparatus generally allows for letting off steam, but sometimes fails to address other key benefits of play, in particular:

1 opportunities for imaginative role play;

2 quiet and contemplative play;

3 the development of manipulative and fine motor skills;

4 discovery and experimentation.

These critical comparisons have less application in reserved toddler play areas that are equipped with multi-play units offering low level, small-scale play items such as Tic Tac Toe, abacus, shape sorting and chime bells, together with play shops, ‘living areas’ and kitchens. However, the general argument remains persuasive.

Writing about the design of preschools in Reggio Emilia, John Bishop gives a powerful description of flexible and infinitely adaptable play spaces that children can ‘appropriate for themselves’, reflecting the free and independent social interaction of the street or piazza.6 The experience of Reggio Emilia provides a welcome reminder of what the children themselves bring to any play space. Until quite recent times there was a seasonality about play, relatively uninfluenced by adults, and in part related to time of the year and to the more important cricket and football seasons. Such play might incorporate ‘bows and arrows’, marbles, ‘fives’ or Jacks, conkers and – as now – skipping and yo-yos, as well as games with improvised materials of all kinds. Children still bring their own imaginative ideas to public play spaces, as well as their bikes, scooters and sporting equipment. Good design can cater for and encourage this tendency.