Join Us
What's New
About Us
We're hiring!


We're hiring!

The Historical Context of Outdoor Learning and the Role of the Practitioner.

You could be forgiven for thinking that outdoor play is a relatively new phenomenon, driven by The National Trust (2016) and their ‘50 Things to do before you’re 11¾’ project.  Children and being outside seems to be a recurrent theme in the media and with organisations, such as the National Trust, focused on reconnecting people with nature and the outside.

Outdoor play is not a new construct; those of us who played outside throughout childhood have fond memories of being at one with nature.  This however, is rather a romanticised view and we should probably consider that perhaps not everyone did play outside.  Previously however, it was more possible to play outside than it seems to be in today’s society.  Through research, Hillman et al. (1990) found that between 1971-1990 there was a 50% decrease in children being allowed outside on their own.  More recently, Unilever (2016) surveyed more than 12,000 parents of 5­12 year olds in 10 countries around the world.  They found that in the U.K. almost a third of children spend less than thirty minutes outside each day, and one in five children on an average day, do not go outside at all.

Possible reasons for children not going outside can be attributed to parents’ fears about safety.  A MORI poll (McNeish and Roberts 1995) conducted by Barnardos found that although 91% of the adults questioned realised the importance of outdoor play, 60% of those polled expressed fears for their children’s safety outside.  Through research Valentine and McKendrick (1997) conclude that parental fears and the changing nature of childhood appear to play a more critical role in limiting, or determining children’s play opportunities. 

Richard Louv (2005, p.34) believes that we have created a society that is “teaching young people to avoid direct experience in nature.” He coined the term ‘Nature Deficit disorder’ and is working globally to highlight the need for children to reconnect with nature through his work with the Children and Nature Network (2016). 

nursery ring games.jpg

Not everyone agrees with the absence of outdoor play, particularly Joyce (2012) who questions its supposed disappearance. Joyce argues that actually outdoor play has just changed and evolved with societal influences and the political context of the time.  Historically, outdoor play was a necessity and a way of life that embedded itself in the early education of children. Nursery schools were, and are still, created with an outdoor space. It is identified as a fundamental part of the Early Years curriculum and seen as an integral part of learning and development (Bilton 2010).

“The best classroom and the richest cupboard is roofed only by the sky” McMillan 1925.

Margaret McMillan realised the potential of outdoor learning over one hundred years ago. The above statement sums up the perspective of one of the pioneers of nursery education.  In her book ‘The Nursery School’ (1919), McMillan describes the development and organisation of her setting in great detail, paying particular attention to the importance of children being outdoors for health and wellbeing. “To feel one’s life in every limb, that is the life of early childhood” (McMillan, 1919).


McMillan drew on the work of the educationalist, Froebel, who built his philosophies on the value of outside learning.  Born in 1782 in Germany, Froebel enjoyed a childhood of education, learning mathematics and languages, but his greatest passion was for being outside in nature.  He saw outdoor play as being intrinsic to children's learning and development. Froebel believed life, beauty and knowledge were interconnected (Pound, 2005).

Besides McMillan and Froebel, Pestalozzi (1746-­1827) and Isaacs (1885­-1948) have also significantly influenced approaches to outdoor education in the Early Years.  Joyce (2012) suggests that identifying a historical context in outdoor learning is central to understanding modern day practices.  It wasn’t until the late eighteenth century that children began to be seen as individuals in their own right; previously they were regarded by society as miniature adults.  These changes in thinking were influenced by political agenda and pedagogy have influenced how we view outdoor learning today. The work of McMillan and Froebel heavily influence today’s practice, with Forest Schools adopting much of their approach in its emphasis on outdoor learning (Knight, 2013).

The importance of outdoor learning and play was formally recognised by the introduction of the Early Years Foundation Stage (EYFS) guidance in September 2000.  The Practice Guidance (DCSF 2008, 1.16) refers to play being the underpinning factor in Early Years education and that opportunities to play indoors and outdoors must be provided.  The document refers to outdoor play as offering “challenge and enjoyment” and this is reiterated by the Principles into Practice card 3.3 (DCSF 2008) that acknowledges that a rich outdoor environment that is safe and secure, yet challenging, helps support children’s learning and development.

The most recent Statutory Framework for the EYFS (2014), although it steps back from in-depth discussion about the outdoor learning environment, does stipulate that;

“Each area of learning and development must be implemented through planned, purposeful play and through a mix of adult ­led and child­ initiated activity” (DFE 2014, p.9).”

The outdoor learning environment according to Moyles (2005) offers opportunities to learn and develop knowledge and understanding of the world as it is a much richer context than the indoors.  Tovey (2007) agrees that the outside is a “dynamic living space” that changes as children and adults interact with the environment.  The outdoor space allows children to relive their experiences through movement, express their emotions through role play and make connections with the world around them (Ouvry 2000). To children, outside is a blank slate on which to create endless possibilities.

Professionals within the Early Years sector play an integral part in delivering quality outdoor provision and meeting the requirements of the Statutory Guidelines but ‘quality’, and what it looks like in practice, is highly contested. Moss and Pence (1994, p.5) consider quality to be a ‘constructed concept’ that is subjective and open to interpretation rather than a universal and unbiased ‘reality’.

mud play.jpg

High quality outdoor provision, according to White (2011), is achieved through having a unified vision with a clear set of beliefs and values. Bilton (2010) paints a picture of what is determined by ‘good outdoor provision’ by describing engaged children, using open ended play materials, joined by adults who facilitate and inspire play through discussion and considerate and informed interaction.

Froebel (cited in Lilley 1967, p 146) identified, over two hundred years ago the support that an adult can give to a child,

“The boy sees the significance but if he does not find the same awareness in adults the seed of knowledge just beginning to germinate is crushed.”

An environment can be filled with all the resources imaginable but without imaginative and sensitive adults, the quality of the play experience is affected. Tovey (2007) argues that the most beautifully designed play spaces can give rise to the most ‘mundane play’ and that supportive, receptive adults that are the key to “transforming spaces and sustaining play.” Featherstone (2001) discusses in her ‘Little Book of Outdoor Play’ the role of supportive adults, who plan activities; give children the time they need to discover and through sensitive discussion help to promote learning and development.  A government review in 2012, led by Professor Cathy Nutbrown, paid particular attention to the role of practitioners, identifying that knowledgeable practitioners are more effective in developing children’s learning and development.  Moyles (2005, p6) reiterates the importance of the ‘facilitative adult’ and draws on the work of Sylva et al. (2003) and the Effective Provision of Preschool Education (EPPE) project, a longitudinal study completed to identify the characteristics of more effective Pre school settings.  Through research, Sylva et al. (2003) discovered that children demonstrate long term intellectual and social benefits when exposed to “high quality play based experiences” in settings with highly qualified practitioners (Moyles 2005, p269). 

planting a tree.jpg

The EYFS (2008) Principles into Practice card 3.3 discusses linking the indoor and outdoor learning environment to allow children the freedom to move between but delivering a seamless curriculum between the indoor and outdoor learning environments can prove challenging at times.  Bilton (2010) discusses a number of difficulties, raised by practitioners as to why indoor and outdoor activities prove difficult to organise, in the promotion of continuous provision.  Most often it is challenges such as the weather, supervision, issues with space, and time to set up activities.

Time can often be thought of as a challenge, having no time to set activities up, or no time to go outside.  Tovey (2007) discusses the importance of children having time to play and engage in rich learning opportunities, without practitioners imposing time slots or restrictions on access to the outdoors.  Freely moving between the indoors and outdoors promotes a more relaxed approach to play.  Tovey (2007) suggests again similarly to Bilton (2010) that organisation and flexibility of the practitioners is key to providing outstanding outdoor provision.

Ouvry (2000) refers to the assumptions she discovered practitioners make to avoid going outdoors.  In particular, the weather was frequently cited by practitioners as a compelling reason for not taking children outside, out of concern for their health and wellbeing.  In fact, exposing children to different weather provides opportunity for a rich learning experience.  Mirrahimi et al. (2011, p.395) conclude in their study, The Impact of Nature on Learning, Social and Emotional Intelligence, that the outside learning environment offers “a chance to learn, not only by hearing and seeing but also by tasting, smelling, touching, and feeling,” providing a “considerable source of stimulation for the process of inspired learning.”  A Department for Education study (DfE 2010) researching the feelings of practitioners towards the Foundation Stage found that overall, practitioners were accessing the outdoor in all weathers and that positive steps were being taken to encourage outdoor learning.

The research also identified a major barrier in accessing outdoors as being space and resources.  Lack of space and access to the outdoors come into question when thinking about different types of childcare provision. The study found that ‘pack-away’ provisions that have to set up and pack away resources every day and are often based in halls without outside facilities, found it incredibly difficult to be outdoors.  Bilton (2010) discusses such difficulties and refers to organisation, adapting and planning as being an integral consideration in these instances.  Planning the areas so that there are enough child initiated activities, allows some flexibility with rotas and practitioners who plan the two environments as one, often find organisation less of a challenge (Bilton 2010).

It would appear that a combination of sensitive adults, organisation and planning allow for opportunity in the outdoor learning environment.  It is clear that the pre-conceived ideas of practitioners play an integral part in how successful outdoor learning is achieved.  Reasons for not going out and the challenges that practitioners face are mostly based on fear, according to Ouvry (2000).  Anxieties concerned with weather, space and risk can outweigh the needs of the children and Ouvry (2000) feels that this maybe a lack of understanding on the part of the practitioner.  It might be argued that training is significant here­ that having practitioners who are experienced in outdoor learning, who have continued professional development and have the knowledge and skills to organise and plan for children’s learning and development in the outdoor learning environment, might be key to promoting outstanding outdoor provision.

The renewed interest in outdoor learning and the emergence of approaches, such as Forest School can only be seen as a positive step in promoting the outdoor learning environment.  As Joyce (2012) concludes, “new approaches to learning do not exist in a vacuum” they are shaped by previous experiences and history.  The curriculum will change in the future to reflect the political and social context of the time.  We can only hope that changes to the EYFS reflect the need and importance of outdoor learning once again and that the practitioners who work tirelessly for the children in their care have opportunities to experience further knowledge and skills in this area.




Bilton, H., 2010. Outdoor Learning in the Early Years. Management and Innovation. Oxon: Routledge.

Children and Nature Network, 2016. Learn Connect Act. Minneapolis:

Children and Nature Network.  Available from: http://www.childrenandnature.org/ [Accessed 18 January 2016].

Department for Children, Schools and Families., 2008. The Early Years Foundation Stage: Principles into Practice Card No. 3.3. Nottingham: DCSF Publications.

Department for Education., 2010. Practitioners’ Experience of the Foundation Stage. London: DFE. Available from: https://www.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/181479/DFE-RR029.pdf  [Accessed 18 January 2016].

Department for Education., 2014. Statutory Framework for the Early Years Foundation Stage. Runcorn: Department for Education.

Early Education., 2012. Development Matters in the Early Years Foundation Stage (EYFS). London: Early Education.

Featherstone, S., 2001. The Little Book of Outdoor Play. Ideas for outdoor activities for the Foundation Stage. Husbands Bosworth: Featherstone Education Ltd.

Hillman, M., Adams,J. and Whitelegg, J., 1990. One False Move… A Study of Children’s Independent Mobility. London: Policy Studies Institute.

Joyce, R., 2012. Outdoor Learning, Past and Present. Maidenhead: Open University Press.

Knight, S., 2009. Forest Schools and Outdoor Learning in the Early Years. London: Sage Publications Ltd.

Lilley, I., 1967. Friederich Frobel. A Selection from his Writings. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Louv, R., 2008. Last Child in the Woods. New York: Algonquin Books.

Mirrahimi, S., Tawil, N., Abdullah, N.A.G., Surat, U. And Usman.I.M.S., 2011. Developing Conducive Sustainable Outdoor Learning: The Impact of Natural environment on Learning, Social and Emotional Intelligence. Procedia Engineering, 20, 380-388. Available from: http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S1877705811029900 [Accessed 18 April 2016].

McMillan, M., 1919. The Nursery School. London: J.M.Dent and Sons.

McNeish, D. and Roberts, H., 1995. Playing it Safe: Today’s Children at Play. Essex: Barnardos.

Moss, P. and Pence, A., 1994. Valuing Quality in Early Childhood Services. London: Paul Chapman.

Moyles, J., 2005. The Excellence of Play. 2nd ed. Maidenhead: Open University Press.

Nutbrown, C., 2012.  Foundations for Quality. The independent review of early education and childcare qualifications. Final Report . London: Crown Copyright. Available from: https://www.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/175463/Nutbrown-Review.pdf [Accessed 25 April 2016].

Ouvry, M., 2000. Exercising Muscles and Minds. Outdoor play and the Early Years Curriculum. London: The National Early Years Network.

Pound, L., 2005. How Children Learn. From Montessori to Vygotsky- Educational Theories and Approaches Made Easy. London: Step Forward Publishing.

Sylva, K., Melhuish, E., Sammons, P., Siraj-Blatchford, I. and Taggart, B., 2004. Effective Pre-school Education: the Effective Provision of Pre-school Education (EPPE) Project. A longitudinal study funded by the DfES 1997-2004: final report. London: DfES.

The National Trust, 2016. 50 things to do before you're 11 ¾. Swindon: The National Trust. Available from: http://www.nationaltrust.org.uk/50-things-to-do [Accessed 22 April 2016].

Tovey, H., 2007. Playing Outdoors. Spaces and Places Risk and Challenge. Maidenhead: Open University Press.

Unilever, 2016. The Truth about Dirt. London: Unilever. Available from: http://www.dirtisgood.com/uk/truth-about-dirt.html [Accessed 18 April 2016].

Valentine, G. and McKendrick, J., 1997. Children’s Outdoor Play. Exploring Parental Concerns About Children’s Safety and the changing Nature of Childhood. Geoforum, 28 (2), 219-235. Available from: http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0016718597000109 [Accessed 11 April 2016].

White, J., 2011. Outdoor Provision in the Early Years. London: Sage.

Michaela Machan
Michaela is an experienced nursery owner and manager. As part of her Early Years degree she researched and wrote about the development of outdoor learning.

User Feedback

Recommended Comments

There are no comments to display.