Easy Ways to Take Play Outside

Cover Image Easy Ways to Take Play Outside/ a boy standing in a grassy field with his arms up

It’s spring and everyone is getting ready to enjoy more time outside. It’s also time to start thinking about how you can take play outside. Play is an essential part of childhood. Through play children build their understanding of the world around them. It is through play that children interact with the world around them (Ginsberg, K. 2007.) According to Laurel Bongiorno in 10 Things Every Parent Should Know About Play, play is important to children’s development for several reasons. Among these reasons are health benefits, stress reduction, and most importantly learning. 

However, as a teacher, I am finding that more and more children have not had opportunities to engage in ample amounts of free play. This is reflected by Kenneth Ginsberg’s article, The Importance of Play in Early Childhood. According to Ginsberg, “Despite the benefits of play for both parents and children, time for free play has been markedly reduced for some children.” I am finding that children are coming to school lacking the confidence and creativity to engage in self directed free play. As a result they are missing out on the numerous benefits of play such as increased communication, teamwork, and collaboration. 

For this reason, I am an advocate for free play, especially play outdoors. During outdoor play children not only receive the benefits of free play, but also the benefits of being in nature. Some of the benefits of taking play outside include:

  • increased creativity
  • stress reduction
  • just the right amount sensory input
  • more space for gross motor development
  • increased communication
  • teamwork and collaboration
  • opportunities to engage in risky play
kids playing with bubbles in a forest

Scaffold Your Way to Play Outside​

Not all children have had the opportunities to engage in freely chosen outdoor play. As a result these children may find being thrown into unstructured and undirected play overwhelming. More and more I have been finding that my kindergarten students simply don’t know how to engage in self-directed play. Some of these children come from backgrounds of trauma or neglect and have not had the opportunity to play. Others have been “over programmed.” Their lives have been scheduled and organized to the point where they are not provided with the time and opportunity to dive into creative play. 

To help these children out, I often find ways to scaffold their way to self-directed outdoor play. The play begins with a structured activity which can then lead into less structured and more self-directed play. 

1. Craft Outdoors​

Making a craft outdoors, or a craft that can be taken outdoors is great if you are trying to work with a theme or hit some curriculum objectives. Making objects such as kites or exploration tools allows the kids to get outside and try out their creation. After a bit of play with their craft, the kids feel less self-conscious and can more readily engage in self-directed play.

2. Sidewalk Chalk​

Similar to crafting outdoors, sidewalk chalk can work as a way to get kids warmed up and ready to play outdoors. I often have kids practice writing numbers or letters with the chalk. They then are free to create their own drawings and eventually are ready to begin playing. 

3. Outdoor Stories​

As part of our outdoor play, we always start with a story. I will often choose a story with an outdoor or seasonal theme. The story helps to ground the kids and bring them together before we begin playing. It also provided some ideas for play inspiration. I also sometimes bring out some picture books for kids to read outside. This allows the children that need a break from busy play to have a quiet, slow-down activity. 

kids digging in the dirt

4. Providing Loose Parts for Outdoor Play​

There are so many fantastic open ended materials for outdoor play. Loose parts are collections of materials with no set purpose. Children may manipulate the loose parts in any way they choose. The open ended nature of loose parts requires children to use their imagination and creativity to use the loose parts as they like.

The beauty of loose parts is that they can be collections of almost anything. You can purchase loose parts collections from educational catalogues, or you can source the parts through dollar stores, thrift stores, hardware stores, and garage sales. Check out this blog post of ideas of materials for outdoor play. 

5. Providing Tools for Creative Outdoor Play​

A few props and tools can help all students dive deeper into their creative play worlds. Items such as stuffed animals, puppets, figurines, or even costumes can help children build imaginary worlds to play and explore. 

6. Mud and Water Play​

Kids can’t resist the sensory play that mud and water can provide. You don’t need to have a formal “mud kitchen” to inspire mud and water play. Simply providing your students with a few kitchen tools, buckets, or garden tools can entice your kids into this sensory play. 

a girl playing in the mud

Making Time and Space to Take Play Outside​

Once your students have had the opportunity to build their confidence and comfort with unstructured outdoor play, it’s time to make it a regular occurrence. Large blocks of time for deep, unstructured play will allow your students to develop their play ideas and stories fully. It will also provide opportunities for the play to naturally resolve itself, rather than being cut short by a bell or snack time. 

Quality Time to Play Outside​

In order for kids to really get into their play, they need ample amounts of uninterrupted time. Transitions can be really tricky for some kids. Transitions can also interrupt play just as it is starting to ramp up. As a result, the play can become stifled or not resolve itself. Well meaning adults can also interrupt play with too many questions or inserting themselves into the play without following the rules established by the students. 

According to Heather Shumaker in order deep and meaningful play to occur, children must have at least 45 minutes to get into play. However, this is just the start, once deep play is initiated more time is needed for the play scenarios to run their course. This means that we need to create large blocks of time in our schedules for play to occur. This time can’t be interrupted by music class, going to snack, or a mid play time game. 

However, if your students are not quite used to playing outdoors for long periods of time yet, they may need to be scaffolded towards longer periods of time outside. Start slowly and increase your time as your students show they can handle it. 

two girls holding hands

Safe Spaces to Play Outside​

If we want children to dive into deep unstructured play, we need to first ensure that they feel safe. Before starting your journey towards outdoor play, you must first ensure that you have a safe outdoor space to play in. Do a thorough check for any human or environmental hazards that may be present in the space. With outdoor play there are hazards that may be naturally present in the environment. It is not possible to clear all hazards from the space, however you can make a plan to mitigate the risks associated with these hazards. 

  1. Do a thorough site assessment- attempt to address any risks that may be present (examples, marking off dangerous areas, marking tripping hazards with trail tape, understanding the wildlife in the area, etc.)
  2. Set clear boundaries (mark with trail tape, traffic cones, a rope, etc.)
  3. Communicate boundaries and safety procedures to your students
  4. Ensure that you have adequate supervision
two children holding hands in the snow

Your Role as an Educator in Outdoor Play​

You may be starting to wonder, “If my kids are involved in self-directed play, what is my role?” As an educator, your role becomes more of a facilitator, rather than a direct teacher. You will still need to create clear structures and boundaries for the play to take place. This isn’t a free for all, but rather you are creating a safe place for the play to take place and creativity to blossom. 

1. Ensuring Safety​

Outdoor play is inherently risky. As the educator, you are responsible for managing the risks. Some of your roles will include:

  • Doing a site assessment prior to bringing your students to the play area
  • Informing parents about outdoor play and what to bring/wear
  • Stocking a First Aid Kit and Ensuring that you are trained in First Aid
  • Doing dynamic risk assessments during play
  • Setting boundaries in your play area (both physical and behavioural)
  • Creating expectations with your students 
  • Teaching your students about how to manage risks during their play
  • Teaching your students protocols for situations that may arise

2. Scaffolding Risk​

Risk is part of what makes outdoor play so enticing and meaningful to children. In fact, risk in play doesn’t mean that things are dangerous, it just means that children perceive the activity as being dangerous. Everyone has different perceptions of risk. You will find that some students have very high (and sometimes a little scary) perceptions of risk while others are much more careful in their approach to play. It is approaching these risks and overcoming fear that helps our students develop a sense of autonomy and confidence in their own abilities. 

As an educator, your job is to help scaffold students in navigating risks and making safe choices. You can help children understand the hazards that are present in your learning space and how to safely approach these hazards. You can also help children to understand their own feelings towards doing risky things and help them make decisions for themselves as to whether or not they want to participate. You can also lend support if a child shows that they want to try something new, but aren’t quite sure how to handle it. 

3 kids playing in the snow

3. Behaviour Management​

I generally have very few behaviour issues during outdoor play. However, there are times when children need assistance in navigating their own emotions or interpersonal issues. Have a behaviour plan ready to go so that you know what to do when different or difficult situations arise. Also, be very clear about your behaviour expectations and boundaries during your outdoor playtime. 

4. Documenting Outdoor Play​

Documenting outdoor play serves many purposes. It informs families on what their kids are doing during outdoor playtime. Documentation also allows you to make curricular connections. This documentation may be especially important if you are required to prove to your administration that your students are in fact learning outside. As an educator, this documentation also allows you to help make decisions as to how you are going to direct or guide future learning activities. 

There are a few ways that I document the students learning during outdoor playtime. They are very similar to how I document things indoors as well.

  • observation notebook- great for recording what students are doing, tracking behaviour, recording play stories
  • photos- I use my phone to collect images of what kids are playing or document their growth. I share photos with families through the app SeeSaw
  •  video- again I use my phone to video exciting events or play activities

5. Finding Ways to Help Kids Dive Deeper or Continue Their Play​

You have helped your students to take play outside and they are loving it! Now it’s time to help them dive deeper into their play. Use your observations and documentation of your students play to create invitations to take their play deeper. Are you students growing tired of some of the loose parts or play materials that you have provided for them? Or maybe there is a prop that just might help them to take their imaginative play deeper or extend their play. Maybe it might just be time to move on to a new location. 

Use your teacher instincts to help provide new opportunities and experiences for your students. Without directing their play, try to figure out what your students need and how to help them get there. However, be cautious as to not insert yourself into the play without permission. This is a fast way to make the play end, especially if you don’t understand the rules of the play. 

two children with magnifying glasses looking at a butterfly outside

Now It’s Time To Take Play Outside!​

There are so many reasons to take play outside no matter what age your students are. Give your students the physical, mental, and social/emotional health benefits of getting outside and of playing. As your students experience opportunities to get involved in unstructured play, they will start to grow in their imagination, creativity, and stamina. You will also see amazing growth in social skills, teamwork, and communication skills amongst your students. 

If you are unsure of where to start or feel like you need a bit of assistance, why not pair up with an older class. Outdoor play is a great opportunity for older students to take on a leadership role and act as care-partners for younger students. It also provides these older students with opportunities to engage in play without having to worry about peer pressure. You can also enlist help from parents or other staff members if you feel you need a bit more supervision to get started. 

Before you take play outside, be sure to take time to prepare. Let families know ahead of time that you will be spending longer periods of time outdoors and inform them about how to dress their students for the weather. You will be surprised at how many families are unsure of how to dress their kids for the outdoors. Also be prepared ahead of time with your teacher bagfirst aid kit, and safety plans ready to go. Know your area and do a good site assessment first so that you can be aware of the hazards.

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