The Importance of Outdoor Play Spaces

Westcoast Child Care Resource Centre has produced a criteria guide, Seven Cs, for outdoor play spaces, based on a five-year multidisciplinary study of outdoor play spaces at of sixteen Vancouver child care centres.  Funded through the Consortium for Health, Intervention, Learning, and Development (CHILD), the study involved academic researchers, early childhood educators, governmental agencies, and professionals. The criteria guide is intended to be used, in concert with existing codes, safety regulations, and design guidelines, to help people design outdoor play spaces that support the development of young children and integrate the unique qualities of playing outdoors.

Considerations included:

  • The valuable opportunities offered by outdoor play to enhance physical and cognitive development, encourage imaginative play, stimulate empathy, and provide a restorative environment for children, along with opportunity for contact with living things (plants and animals) and environmental conditions that change with the seasons.
  • Curriculum opportunities for early childhood educators to teach children about the particular character of their local environment (the West Coast of BC).
  • Opportunities for large group activities that are more difficult indoors.
  • Opportunity to express the particular quality of the individual program and take ownership of the play space. A challenge noted is the predominance of pre-fabricated standardized play equipment that “does not express the unique qualities of playing outdoors”.
  • The need for play spaces that can accommodate gross motor play, free play and spontaneous exploration, demonstrated by recent studies in North America and Europe showing that vigorous gross motor movement is declining among young children, contributing to the increasing problems of obesity in school-age children.
Photo Credit: Stock Snap photo user Scott Webb, j405lo4b6y
Photo Credit: Stock Snap photo user Scott Webb, j405lo4b6y

The study looked at four areas of focus:

  • Size of the outdoor play spaces and where children played in these spaces.
    • Gross motor movement is declining among young children, with implications for childhood obesity, yet in both Canada and the US, outdoor space allocation for children in full time care has remained unchanged since the 1980s, while changes to safety regulations for play equipment have resulted in lower play structures with larger no-encroachment zones, leading to decreased space for gross motor play.
    • Types of play observed in different play environments.
      • Play types observed included social play (cooperative, independent and aggressive); play direction (child-directed, staff-directed, combination, and play ‘themes’).
      • Play types involved imaginative play, volitional play, communicative play, object play, exploratory play, and gross motor play, varying in duration from fleeting to moderate to deep play.
      • What staff and children enjoy about their current outdoor play spaces.
        • Capturing children and adult perceptions about of time periods and events beyond the duration of the study, as well as perceptions of the immediate situation.
        • Presence of living things in the outdoor environment.
          • Drawing on previous research in landscape architecture demonstrating that outdoor play spaces can provide contact with living things, like plants, which change with time, offering potential for enhancement of physical, cognitive and language development; encouragement of imaginative play; stimulation of empathy; and provision of restorative experiences for children.
          • Amount of manipulable materials in the outdoor play environment.
            • Incorporation of manipulable materials such as sand, dirt, gravel and water into play space to allow opportunity for children to exert control over their environment and reconstruct the surroundings to suit their needs in play.

The study was performed using an Action Research Model, incorporating:

  • Review of similar studies
  • Documented field observations
  • Focused interviews and workshops with early childhood educators and directors
  • Observation of children
  • Review of how policy effects the implementation of physical designs for outdoor play areas (performed in collaboration with policymakers)

Their findings:

  • Quality outdoor play environments:
    • Had elements for children to manipulate and customize
    • Contained living things
    • Were sensitive to climate
    • Were designed to the scale of the child
    • Allowed the child’s imagination to shape the play experience
    • Provided opportunities and space for both individual and group play
    • The Seven Cs criteria are character, context, connectivity, change, chance, clarity and challenge.
    • Children need more space:
      • Child care centres exceeding their densities had more aggression.
      • Centres with equipment purchased in the past six years have less space for non-equipment play.
      • Purpose-built play equipment was unoccupied 87% of the time, with only 3% of the time used for play as intended by the structural design and the other 10% of structure use involved play underneath, use as a prospect, or combination of loose parts with the structural base.
      • Contact with living organisms (e.g. plants, animals, insects) increases developmental opportunities for children, including increased interaction with each other and with their EC educators.
      • There was no discernable relationship between themes created by the manufacturers or designers and children’s imaginative play.
      • 70% of educators comments about what the children appreciate most about their play space involved spatial qualities (e.g. yard shape and equipment location).
      • Aggression between children increases when no manipulable material is provided in their outdoor space.
      • The physical materials of the play environment influence the sound landscape (e.g. hard surface areas measure higher reflected street noise and noise levels), which in turn influences stress levels demonstrated by the children, based on observations of children in noisier and quieter centres.
      • While educators wanted to see additional sensory experiences for the children (43%), better organized space (35%), improved equipment, structures and seating (22%), children wanted more soft spaces in both their indoor and outsdoor spaces.

The guide offers detailed exploration and recommendations around each of the 7Cs, visually supported with photos and charts.

Their conclusions:

  • The design of outdoor play spaces (design type, size, configuration, age of equipment, and materials) impact children’s play and development.
  • Economic conditions are linked to quality outdoor spaces.
  • Safety changes to equipment and no-encroachment zones impact the quality of the entire play space and its use.
  • Living elements, including plants, are important to children’s play spaces.
  • Childcare staff members have concern about the environmental qualities of their play spaces.
  • Given that children only use the play structures 13% of the time, attention needs to be paid to the whole environment of the play space.
  • Rooftop play spaces are one of the fasted growing play space types in the city, and the study showed them to be some of the noisiest and hottest play spaces. Landscape gardeners, who are specifically trained to design outdoor environments for people, and who have pioneered the application of plants on rooftops without compromising the building envelope, should be involved in planning rooftop play spaces.
  • Further studies need to be performed to include aspects of weather that are not present in Vancouver, such as heavy snow loads and extreme heat conditions.
  • Further research needs to be performed on the space ratio per child.

The findings of the study on the value of natural materials in outdoor play areas are reinforced in a recent blog posting by Dr. Beverlie Dietze of Okanagan College on The Importance of Increasing Children’s Outdoor Play Opportunities, written for the Canadian Child Care Federation.  Beverlie has been researching and writing about outdoor play for several years, and has delivered key note addresses and workshops related to outdoor play both nationally and internationally.  Her blog posting explores four aspects of outdoor play:  inquiry-based outdoor learning opportunities; the value of ‘loose parts’; sparking creativity and wonderment; the importance of risk-taking for children as a component of development.

1) The Power of Rocks in Children’s Outdoor Place of Learning

Triggered by observation of neighbourhood children exploring a pile of rocks adjacent to the bike path, Dr. Dietze reflects on how listening to children at play in a natural environment offers opportunities for learning professionals “to incorporate children’s quest for knowledge into the environment and support triggering their curiosity within the context of an enquiry-based place of learning.”

She notes that the National Science Foundation (2001) suggests that inquiry-based learning involves a process of exploring the natural or material world that triggers questions and making discoveries that contribute to a new level of understanding.

She tells the story of how, in her own practice, she used the rock play she observed as a starting point when she had “the opportunity to place a number of rocks in an outdoor environment with children in a preschool program.  During the process, I saw children’s curiosity, learning ideas, patterns, and strategies unfold in very different from what I observed in their indoor environment….Over the days of exploring the rocks, I documented core questions that the children posed about rocks and documented some of their explorations and creations as they continued to visit and revisit their rock play.”  She suggest types of questions that promote inquiry-based outdoor play experiences with rock explorations:

  • Pose questions that invite children to think about their current knowledge and validate what they know and what they want to explore – What do you know about these rocks? How do you know this?
  • Use open-ended questions to trigger curiosity and further exporation – what might happen if you stacked the rocks in a vertical position…. What do you think this means? What observations did you make that are different from stacking rocks lengthwise?
  • What might happen if you think about the idea in terms of vertical versus horizontal?
  • What do you think about this…If we did this, would you still think the same way or differently? Why?
  • What ideas do you have that we should think about?
  • What do you need to know to take your idea to another perspective?

She identified three key roles played by the educator:

  • Inviting the children to explore the rocks: placing the rocks in the outdoor environment, positioning resources nearby (e.g. books, hammers, safety glasses, buckets, water), asking questions that support investigation of the rocks.
  • Encouraging children to use the rocks in new ways:
    • Providing a variety of rocks and displays that use rocks in vertical and horizontal positions
    • Placing rocks in unusual outdoor locations with notes nearby
    • Placing additional natural materials near the rocks (sand, sticks, etc.)
    • Discussing with the children how they would like to use the rocks, and what the anticipate requiring.
    • Engaging in discussions with the children
      • Encouraging the children to photo-document and tell the story of their experience as documentation.
      • Introduce new vocabulary (e.g. symmetry, vertical, collapse, extend, asymmetrical)
      • Ask about the processes used by the children for various experiences.

2) How Loose Parts Support Children’s Ways of Thinking and Knowing

This post was inspired by a review of the research conducted by Caileigh Flannigan for Master of Arts degree at Mount Saint Vincent University in Halifax, Nova Scotia.

Nicholson (1971) coined the term loose parts theory to articulate the idea that children benefit from being given open-ended materials that are movable and do not have a devined use, and that may be used alone or with other materials, suggesting that “in any environment, both the degree of inventiveness and creativity, and the possibility for discovery, are directly proportional to the number and kind of variables in it.”

Examples of ‘loose parts’ include boards, crates, spools, sticks, rope, rocks, shells, pine cones, balls, tins, containers, pails, brushes, tree branches, fabric, blankets, scarves, dress-up clothes, etc.

Flannigan observed children playing with both familiar and unfamiliar loose parts, demonstrating that in environments where new loose parts are placed, there is an increase in the levels of curiosity expressed.  Dietze notes that Flannigan “suggested that children engage in higher levels of physical activity, take healthy risks in their play and their interactions are extended to include different ages and genders when loose parts are available”.  Her findings also suggested that “weapon play is common among children who are given the freedom to explore, discover and engage in play that is triggered by the materials within the environment”  engaging with concepts of morality and heroism.

3) Imagining Outdoor Spaces that Intrigue Children in their Sense of Curiosity and Wonderment

Dietze comments here on the 7Cs criteria in designing play spaces for children and looks at key functional components for play spaces, including:

  • Play Zones
    • Flexible zones
    • Green zones
    • Affinity zones
    • Quiet learning zones
    • Seasonal zones
    • Play Environmental Elements
      • Variety of surfacing
      • Play shelter
      • Sunshine and shade
      • Beautiful stuff
      • Wildlife habitat
      • Physical Movement and Risk Taking
        • Climbing, jumping and height
        • Running and speed
        • Tools
        • Elements
        • Rolling and rough and tumbling
        • Loose Parts
          • Types of loose parts
          • Experiential Play
            • Mud, water and sand play
            • Dramatic play
            • Language and literacy
            • Art, Music, Math and Science experiences
            • Music experience
            • Involving Parents and Family
              • Parental education
              • Pedagogical documentation
              • Locally appropriate curriculum
              • Children’s clothing
              • Role of Early Learning Practitioners
                • Planning
                • Professional development
                • Outdoor space design

She concludes by noting, “space interacts with children and adults, and communicates ways that tell them how to act within the space….Children tend to spend more time playing when there are opportunities for them to expand their creativity and imaginations, and to make their space their own.  The components of children’s outdoor spaces either support or hinder the flow of children’s play.”

4) The Risky Joys of Outdoor Play

In this final section, Dietze discusses the importance of risk-taking as a key component of child development, and the challenges in establishing opportunities for risk in a child care setting.  She gives ten suggestions of strategies for early childhood educators to begin the dialogue with colleagues, parents and children on risk taking:

  1. Parents may require support to encourage children in being able to take risks. Provide parent information about the relationship of risk taking to child development and learning in newsletters and on web-sites.
  2. Invite parents to engage in outdoor risky play times with children and staff. This allows staff to highlight the types of play that are supporting risk taking opportunities.
  3. Educators and children create pedagogical documentation that visually shows children engaged in risk taking play. Include key points on how the play in the photos support risk taking.
  4. Educators examine their philosophy on and feelings about risk taking. As a group, they take inventory of the personal feelings of the team and then collectively develop strategies that will balance positions and roles during outdoor experiences so that children’s risk taking adventures will be encouraged and supported.
  5. Educators engage in observing children’s skills and then create opportunities for them to advance risk taking. Scaffolding experiences support children’s success in their risk taking play.
  6. Educators create challenging environments by providing a range of heavy loose parts such as ropes and rocks, differing terrain, offering materials that allow children to create large structures, and offer play spaces that allow for freedom to explore.
  7. Educators become conscious of their language with children during the outdoor exploration. They reduce the natural instinct to say “No! That is dangerous” and determine if the act is dangerous or if children are being overprotected.
  8. Educators examine procedures and practices at least every six months to ensure that they are addressing hazards and risks appropriately.
  9. Educators engage in professional development that shares current research on children and risk taking.
  10. Educators reflect upon on the following:
  • How do adults help children make the decisions about the risks they wish to take?
  • How do adults support children in helping children learn from their risks, especially with those that are not successful?
  • How do you offer children support for some of their explorations without reducing their enthusiasm for their potential idea?
  • How do you communicate with families about the value of children’s risk-taking and how often do you have such communication?
  • How do you continue to develop your knowledge and comfort for risk-taking?