Professional Perspectives and Research on Children’s Outdoor Environments
Prepared by the North Carolina Outdoor Learning Environments Alliance (NCOLEA)
NCOLEA was established in February 2006 to improve the quality of outdoor environments and experiences for children throughout North Carolina. The Alliance is co-chaired by Janet McGinnis (North Carolina Office of School Readiness: firstname.lastname@example.org) and Jani Kozlowski (North Carolina Partnership for Children: email@example.com)
This document represents a beginning step in compiling information on outdoor
environments for young children. Some of the information is based on
professional perspectives, and other information is based on empirical research.
The empirical studies are denoted with a “*”. There are undoubtedly other
chapters, articles, books, etc. that have not yet been included in this list. We
would welcome feedback and suggestions for additions to this document,
particularly those that are empirical research studies on outdoor environments
Importance/Advantages of Outdoors
Playground Design: Fixed Equipment
- Outdoor play experiences can be as effective as indoor play in stimulating
young children’s development (Henniger, 1993).
- Outdoor environment is a unique learning setting which supports an array
of activities different from those provided by the indoor setting (Talbot &
- Children experience a great sense of freedom in the outdoor settings
- The large spaces provide opportunities for children to use their whole
body to explore, plan and to implement these plans without limitations on
noise and activity (Perry, 2003).
- Playgrounds are better than indoor classroom settings for activities that
are messy or loud (Greenman, 1988).
- More friendly, nonviolent, rough and tumble play and limited superhero
or war play that are discouraged indoors can be accommodated outdoors
(Frost, Wortham & Reifel, 2001). Quality
- Children’s experiences outdoors can be varied with some types of
outdoors environments supporting children’s learning, growth and
development more effectively than the others (Frost, 1992 cited in
- * In a study of 41 programs, it was found that in lower quality outdoor
environments children engaged more in functional or repetitive play,
while in higher quality outdoor environments, children showed a tendency
to display more constructive play than children in lower quality settings.
As the quality of the outdoor program decreased, the frequency of
negative behaviors increased (DeBord, Hestenes, Moore, Cosco, &
Research on Developmental Areas Physical Development
- Many childcare outdoor environments, even today, consist of isolated
pieces of equipment in a monoculture of grass (Herrington & Studmann,
- Fixed equipment leaves little room for children to play creatively, since
there is generally a finite number of ways to use each aspect of the
equipment (Brown & Burger, 1984_ Walsh, 1993).
- Such play spaces are neither developmentally appropriate nor
economically sound (Frost, Wortham & Reifel, 2001).
- * In their study of children’s play preferences in three types of public,
accessible outdoor play settings (traditional, contemporary and
adventure), Hayward, Rothenberg, and Beasley (1974) found that
preschool children played more often in contemporary and traditional
playgrounds while schoolaged children played more often in adventure
- Traditional playgrounds consisting of fixed equipment (such as slides,
swings, monkeybars) do not offer opportunities for children to play
creatively (Walsh, 1993) and promote competition rather than cooperation
- Safety standards and guidelines have led to the decrease in marketing of
overhead apparatus, sliding poles, climbers, etc., for 2to5year olds.
Children therefore become bored and go to nonequipment forms of play
or use equipment in unintentional ways (Frost, Wortham & Reifel, 2001).
- When children become bored, accidents are more likely to happen and
therefore an important safety factor is to provide plenty of options for play
(Frost 1985, cited in Striniste & Moore, 1989).
- These safety guidelines have led to a reduction in the number of accidents
and increased safer opportunities for children’s play. However, they have
put limitations on the creativity, challenge, flexibility, and natural features
of outdoor spaces (Frost, Wortham & Reifel, 2001).
- * In their study of 2nd grade children, Frost and Cambell (1985, cited in
Walsh, 1993) found that children preferred action-oriented equipment
over static equipment and multiple-function equipment over singlefunction
structures. Playground DesignNatural Elements
- * Moore and Cosco conducted a Baseline Survey of Environmental
Conditions of Outdoor Areas in 326 North Carolina childcare centers and
found a low level of environmental diversity. On average programs had 7
manufactured elements (sand boxes, fixed equipment, play house) and
only 3 natural elements (usually grass, trees, and mulch).
- Creative playgrounds that include modular coordinated play installations
as well as unique architectural designs having natural materials and forms,
have been found to be more attractive and preferred by children
- * Moore and Wong (1997) shared valuable lessons they learned from their
school based ecosystem, reinvented from a barren elementary school
landscape. They reveal that children can peacefully coexist with nature.
Nature is an economic, social, scientific, and cultural resource. They also
found that peace and coexistence was fostered among children with the
absence of boredom and antisocial behavior (cited in Frost, Wortham &
- * Installing natural materials and other landscape elements to children’s
outdoor play yards led to changes in children’s spatial cognitive
awareness. Changes in the layout of the playground also challenged and
increased children’s physical competence and skills. Improvements were
observed in children’s socialization and fantasy play which lasted for
longer durations (Herrington & Studmann, 1998).
- * In their study of 41 playgrounds in North Carolina, Hestenes, Shim, &
DeBord (2007) found that on playgrounds with more natural elements,
children displayed less functional or repetitive behavior and more
constructive (building, hypothesizing) play. Also, children who interacted
more with the natural environment engaged in more constructive play and
less functional play.
- Outdoor play and outdoor environments are typically associated with
physical movement and activities (Davies, 1996_ Henniger, 1993).
- I am struck by the fact that the more slowly trees grow at first, the sounder they are at the core, and I think that the same is true of human beings. We do not wish to see children precocious, making great strides in their early years like sprouts, producing soft and perishable timber, but better if they expand slowly at first, as if contending with difficulties, and so are solidified and perfected. Such trees continue to expand with nearly equal rapidity to an extreme old age. Henry David Thoreau
- The unique features of the outdoors as compared to indoors includes the
potentially greater space and freedom of movement available to children
and the availability of equipment and materials that enable children to
engage in large muscle activities as well as enhance fine motor
development (Davies, 1996).
- * Cullen (1993) in her study of preschool children’s use and perceptions
of outdoor play found that boys engaged in more physical play than girls.
- * Barbour (1999) found that playground design influenced elementary
children’s physical skill development by facilitating or constraining the
strategies they used to manage their play with peers. She also noted that
children’s engagement with materials and equipment in the physical
environment affected their motor skill development and their physical
- * In a study by Baranowski, Thompson, DuRant, Baranowski, and Puhl
(1993), preschool children spent an overwhelming amount of time indoors
as compared to outdoors and their physical activity was lower inside than
when they were outside.
- * Poest, Williams, Witt and Atwood (1989) in their examination of
physical activity patterns revealed that preschool children are not engaged
in vigorous physical activity all year.
- * Studies on children in child care also highlight the growing evidence of
a sedentary lifestyle and the increase in childhood obesity rates (Pate,
Pfeiffer, Trost, Ziegler, & Dowda, 2004).
- The National Association for Sport and Physical Education (NASPE,
2000) has developed guidelines for physical activity for children birth to
five. These guidelines suggest that children should receive at least 60
minutes of daily structured physical activity and 60 minutes to several
hours of daily unstructured physical activity.
- * Susa and Benedict (1994) investigated the effect of playground design
on elementary schoolaged children’s pretend play and divergent thinking.
Results indicated that creativity, which was related to the amount of
pretend play, varied as a function of playground design. More pretend
play and creativity occurred on the contemporary playground as compared
to the traditional playground.
- The greater the number of environmental variables to which we expose
children, the more inventiveness and creativity we will observe
- * Frost et al. (2001) in their observation of a high quality program found
that the outdoor environment led to more symbolic play in both boys and
girls as compared to the indoor environment.
- * Shim, Herwig, and Shelly (2001), based on an observational study of
three low quality programs, reported that preschool children were more
likely to engage in more complex forms of peer play (i.e., interactive
dramatic play) outdoors than indoors.
- Research on outdoor play has illustrated that outdoor environments can
stimulate as much or even more social play compared to indoor
environments (Hartle, 1996).
- The size of the construction material provided in the outdoor setting and
the amount of space available outdoors can stimulate large projects which
require cooperation and teamwork, and promote complex sociodramatic
play themes (Davies, 1996).
- Spacious outdoor environments support a wide range of activities
involving large groups of children, like group games with balls and
parachutes (Naylor, 1985).
- * Henniger (1985, cited in Davies, 1996) found differences in social play
that occurred indoors and outdoors. More solitary activity was observed
indoors while more parallel play was observed outdoors. Similar levels of
cooperative play occurred in both the environments.
Research on Teachers’ Role Outdoors
- The space available outdoors leads to fewer constraints of children’s
behaviors and enables them to find solitude away from other children and
adults, engage in solitary activity or be in small, intimate groups. Such
opportunities for solitary pursuits and experience of privacy are necessary
for young children (Greenman, 1988).
- Jacobs (1980) suggested that privacy helps in the development of personal
autonomy as it gives the child an opportunity to come to terms with his
own thoughts and feelings. Privacy also enables children to release their
emotions and to gain respite from the pressures of social norms and
expectations (Davies, 1996).
- Many teachers view the outdoors as secondary to the learning which
occurs indoors (Dighe, 1993_ Henniger, 1993).
- * Most teachers do not understand the full potential of the outdoor
environment for children’s development (Davies, 1996, 1997)
- * Teachers who provided sterile outdoor environments with limited play
choices and opportunities were those who either did not understand or
underestimated the potential of outdoors to stimulate various aspects of
children’s learning and growth (Jones, 1989).
- * Davies (1996), in her interview with 22 teachers in a preschool in
Australia found that most teachers reported the primary function of the
outdoor setting as promoting physical and social/emotional development.
- * Teachers’ beliefs were reflected on the way the outdoor environment
was set up, with the most opportunities for children being related to
physical development (Davies, 1996).
- * In terms of diversity in the outdoor environment, less than half of the
teachers thought about natural elements as a part of their outdoor
curriculum and those who did seemed to believe that it would improve the
playground attractiveness rather than further educational needs of the
children (Davies, 1996).
- * Most teachers shared the belief that children’s play should be
supervised, but children need freedom to engage in activities of their
choice and freedom from teacher interventions (Davies, 1997)
- * Teachers also perceived that their role was to set up the stage for play
and direct children when they engaged in inappropriate behaviors (Davies,
- * Studies on teachers’ behaviors outdoors show that child care, preschool
and nursery teachers rarely participate in children’s activities outdoors
(Brown & Burger, 1984) and their participation is mainly confined to
setting up equipment and settling disputes among children (Jones, 1989).
- * Teachers’ interactions may also be influenced by the quality of the
outdoor environment. DeBord et al. (2005) found that teacher behaviors
that more frequently supported and facilitated children’s experiences on
the playground were observed on higher quality outdoor environments.
- * Overholser and Pelerin (1980, in Striniste & Moore, 1989) surveyed
Michigan child care and preschool facilities to see how they were meeting
children’s gross motor needs outdoors. Most were inadequate because
they contained poorly designed equipment. In addition, there was
evidence of a lack of teacher training related to gross motor development
- * Wade’s (1985, in Striniste & Moore, 1989) training program focused
first on child development and then on specific “intervention strategies”
for structuring the use of the playground setting. The training produced
dramatic effects on children’s cognitive and social outdoor play.
Research on Indoor Outdoor Connection
- The best play and learning places for children flow between the indoor
and the outdoor settings (Frost et al., 2001). More studies need to be
conducted on programs that provide for such a connection.
Perspectives on Specific Aspects versus a Global View
- An environmental specificity approach to study preschool outdoor
environments is beneficial rather than investigating the global effects of
playgrounds on children’s development (Striniste & Moore, 1989).
- Using names like “traditional” and “contemporary” playgrounds which
give a general view of one being “good” and the other being “bad” have
not advanced our understanding of the effect of outdoor environments on
children’s development. The environmental specificity approach may
prove to be more productive because it allows a systematic study of
specific aspects of the outdoor environment (Striniste & Moore, 1989).
- * Brown and Burger (1984) anticipated contemporary playgrounds to
support more desirable play than traditional playgrounds but found no
significant differences. However, they found that “encapsulated” spaces
promoted more positive play. Such knowledge of specific features of the
outdoor environments and their effect on children’s play is valuable.