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The importance of outdoor play in early years

Outdoor play supports children's problem-solving skills and nurtures their creativity, as well as providing rich opportunities for their developing imagination, inventiveness and resourcefulness.

There’s lots of possibilities when it comes to outdoor play for EYFS. Children love to play in yards or playgrounds, as well as natural environments, like the beach or a woodland. Outdoor play can revolve around simple physical games that benefit children’s health and muscle development, like climbing or chasing. Or, their play might involve investigating and deepening their understanding of the world and natural processes happening all around them, like examining minibeasts with a magnifying glass or collecting freshly fallen acorns.

Outdoor play at Clowns

Luckily we have all of the above with access to playgrounds, large grassy areas, sensory gardens, wild flower areas and a woodland.

Our daily routine here at Clowns always includes outdoor play and activities that will enhance the outdoor environment and what is has to offer. Personal Development

Physical Development

Ultimately, access to outdoor spaces should allow children to develop their moving and handling skills in a range of different ways. Children should have access to a wider range of movements that they can’t do indoors in a typical learning setting, like balancing, swinging, climbing, or digging. An ideal space for outdoor play might include obstacle courses, monkey bars, climbing frames, tunnels, and a natural woodland space to make dens. Providing a range of opportunities like this helps children develop their core strength, stability, balance, spatial awareness, co-ordination and agility.

Personal, Social and Emotional development

Outdoor play often gives children more freedom and autonomy than indoor play as they can explore and be independent. As part of PSED guidance in Development Matters, it’s recommended that practitioners provide outdoor resources to develop children’s independence and self-confidence. It also states practitioners should make sure children feel confident taking part in activities outdoors. This ensures the child is developing in a well-rounded way and is willing to embrace new surroundings in the outside world.

When it comes to social skills, children can play in larger groups when given more space outdoors. This can help them develop better social skills and learn to manage their emotions in a large group.

For emotional development, any amount of time spent exercising in the fresh air boosts wellbeing and mental health among children. Given space to run, jump, climb, roll and skip outdoors, children can blow off steam, lower their stress levels, and improve their overall performance in education once they're back in the classroom.

As well as this day to day outdoor play we also have Forest School session and Cook Outs all year round no matter the weather.

Communication and Language

Having access to outdoor space helps children develop and expand their language and vocabulary in new ways. They’ll discover words and concepts they wouldn’t come across in the classroom. For example, a child might seek out the names of specific insects, or want to discuss the different sounds and smells they experienced in nature. Development Matters suggests that adults should regularly encourage children to talk about their outdoor play, and make time to listen to what they have to say to develop their communication skills.

Outdoor play also provides ample opportunity for children to explore the language of the stories, songs, and rhymes they’ve learned in class more freely. For example, after reading ‘We’re Going on a Bear Hunt’, children may go outside and re-invent the rhyme with obstacles they see on a ‘hunt’ of their own. When they’re able to be as loud and energetic as they please outdoors, children can communicate without restraints and be imaginative with their word choices.


To encourage Literacy, Development Matters suggests that practitioners could take books outside and share stories with children on picnic rugs or in small tents. This is a weather dependent suggestion, of course! But it’s a great way to combine outdoor play with books and stories. The outdoors often makes a great backdrop for story-themed lessons that build on children’s interests. For example, a role-play including farm animals will play out much better on a grassy area outside while learning to sing "Old McDonald Had a Farm" as a group. This will also be a memorable and exciting Literacy lesson for children!

Outdoor play can also motivate children to write as it provides opportunities for them to describe what they see, hear, and smell outside. An easy way to encourage this is by providing children with clipboards and pens to write while they’re in outdoor spaces, or to set up an accessible outdoor chalkboard with writing prompts.

Outdoor play provides countless opportunities to develop early mathematics skills. Development Matters suggests using the outdoors to regularly encourage children to count in playful contexts. For example, children love playing hide-and-seek outdoors, and this is a great, simple way to encourage counting in sequence. Especially in a large outdoor space, an adult can suggest that children count to the highest number they can in order to give other children a good chance to hide. You can encourage other skills through outdoor maths challenges, scavenger hunts, or simply asking children comparative questions about lengths, heights, or amounts, such as ‘Which tree is taller?’ or ‘Which bucket has more sand in it?’.

Understanding the World

Outdoor play is imperative to this area of development. How can children understand the world around them without physically exploring it? Guidance states that practitioners should provide interesting natural environments for children and encourage their exploration, curiosity, appreciation and respect for nature and the creatures that live in it.

For example, a child enjoying outdoor play might be seen to be splashing in puddles, rolling through long grass, admiring flowers in bloom, searching for insects like woodlouse under logs, or creating their own structures out of sand and water. This kind of play is viewed as positive for development and should be celebrated and encouraged, where possible.

Adults should also encourage children to be respectful of nature and make focused

observations during outdoor play. Practitioners and childminders can encourage this by:

Modelling how to handle insects and minibeasts carefully, and how to return them to their natural habitat after observing them.

  • Showing children how to plant, water and look after seedlings in order to grow healthy plants.

  • Encouraging children to bring natural materials from their outdoor play back into the setting to discuss them with other children, such as conkers from the woods or shells from the beach.

  • Listening to children describing and talking about things they experienced while playing outside, such as the weather, plants or animals.

Expressive Arts and Design

Finally, Development Matters states that EYFS practitioners should provide plenty of open-ended resources for children to play with freely outdoors. It also states it’s important to make time and space for children to become deeply involved in imaginative play outside. Luckily, the natural world is perfect for Imaginative Play and Open-Ended Play as it's full of versatile and interesting materials and spaces. A stick can be used as a magic wand or a pen to write their name in the mud, and climbing a tree can feel like climbing the Empire State Building, or the Eiffel Tower. There’s also plenty of scope for crafting and creating using natural materials, such as making collages out of fallen leaves in the Autumn, or creating colourful flower crowns for role-playing.

Forest School

“My favourite part of Forest School is EVERYTHING.”

Here at Clowns we have regular Forest School sessions which include a range of activities that are adult led as well as activities and resources for the children to lead for themselves.

Forest School is a place where we see the children thrive in the outdoor environment and develop in ways we wouldn't get to see indoors.

Please visit our Forest School page on the website for more information and details on this.


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