Lets get grubby!

Making the most of our Outdoor Environment

My thoughts are brought back to Mid -Spring some 12 years ago, when completing a student Teacher assessment in a small town in Co Down.  The student had planned an outdoor activity, so I was indeed intrigued to receive her proposal engaging with an outdoor activity in a Forest School in the Built up town, where it would have been unusual to find a large garden, let alone a Forest.  Upon stepping through the patio doors into the outdoor environment, the most magical sight met my gaze, and one, which has resonated with me from that time…. 

The small Walled garden had been transformed into the most intriguing willow maze, with a living wall encompassing the parameter, and woven willow Tunnels serving as pathways, to the different nooks and cranny’s;

The living Willow Den, with steps to one side, leading to a small slide – which after sliding down, lead the enchanted children to a choice of pathways, and either a reading nook – created from woven willow branches, under which an array of books and writing materials were spread on a colourful blanket.

Or a small seated area, created beautifully from tree stumps, the tops of which had each been painted a different bright colour, and by adding small misshapen blobs, created the illusion of mushrooms where children could sit and watch, relax and take it all in, or engage with the utensils which were strewn around to allow their imaginations to create, a home, kitchen, hotel, restaurant or whatever came to mind that day…

To the left, just under the one overhanging tree; protruding from behind the wall in the corner of the neighbouring garden, were a selection of coloured rocks – quite large, and stacked against the dirt of the garden which was piled up against the wall; I later discovered this was the bug den;  and weaving their way amongst this magical array were 15 – 3yr olds in their element,.  Of course the child in me had to explore, and while the Tunnels proved a little to much, size wise, for an adult to negotiate – it was wonderful to creep inside the living willow den, and see the buds starting to emerge; providing cover and shelter from the sun’s rays.

Outdoor Environments

In recent years, my memories of this intriguing and magical creation have often sprung to mind, when listening to students talking about their lack of outdoor space, or their need to move premises so they can have access to more space; the difficulties they encounter when negotiating inspections and trying to ensure that their children are having the best experience possible, and I ask myself, is Space the only consideration when we are developing our outdoors, or should we become more creative and make the most of what we have available to us.  This question was further highlighted during my recent research, and one of the significant findings, indicated the concern that Early Years practitioners still have in terms of the space, which is available to them, and how best to make suitable use of this space.  This leads to a further question, are we as Early years Practitioners as creative as we could be, perhaps we need to, like Worzel Gummidge – remove our adult head and replace it with a child’s view of the space which is available.  I have often wondered if as we mature, does our creativity diminish.

Time spent in Nature

There is nothing new in the concept that time spent in nature benefits every aspect of the child’s development and yet research informs us that children are spending less time outdoors, both at home and in school.  Additionally my current research showed that there are few preschools that truly recognise the outdoor environment as an extension of the traditional classroom, or realise the benefits of enhancing and extending the learning experiences and concepts which the child has begun to engage with indoors.  

Values – Independence and Resilience

Some findings from my current research included the awareness of benefits of outdoor environments in promoting risk management, independence and resilience in children (Magennis, In Press).   The simple fact that outdoor environments lead to more self directed experiences; providing openings for each child to explore and cultivate the skills necessary to navigate social relationships with limited adult intervention, while encouraging autonomy, resilience and independence (Nelson, 2012, Tuuling et. al, 2018).  Risks, which young children take outdoors, have been shown to foster self-confidence when children learn to effectively manage risks and trust their own judgement.  Tovey (2007) argued that a child which is capable of taking physical risks will eventually develop the skills required to become competent at taking social risks also; thus children are encouraged to trust in themselves, and they learn to navigate dangerous situations independently, resulting in autonomy being supported, and self esteem and confidence developing further.  Therefore it is more important that we utilise the outdoor space with this in mind, rather than focusing on how much of it we have.  A small rich outdoor area can bring much more learning and adventure to a small child’s mind, than a large under resourced space. 

Utilising– making the most of our space

This brings me back to the one factor, which was identified as being of significant importance throughout my research.  That of the suitability of the space available to some practitioners, and the need to consider as adults have we lost our ability to imagine and explore what is available to us.  Apart from the fact that as adults we are taller, and generally less agile than the children we work with. We need to remember that what looks small and cramped, may in fact need to be considered as an extension of Montessori’s child sized tools, and natural environments. Thus the garden, which looks small, might just be the right size for a small child to explore and investigate.  Rather than looking solely at the space, we need to consider the variety of natural resources, which are readily available to us, when we step outside of our indoor classroom environment. 

Consideration should be given to the seasons and the changes which come with them; changes in colour, texture, smell, sensation; all of which carry with them an array of learning and engagement for young children to explore and investigate. 

One question is what exactly do we mean by nature and natural environments.  For some of my participants, the concern they shared was the inadequacy of space for slides, climbing frames, bicycles, and toys, most made from plastics and as far from natural and nature as we can go. 

A further question, is that of creativity, which again for my Participants appeared to involve drawing, painting, making and did not have much at all to do with imagination or pretending, a factor which caused some concern.  This led me to the consideration that perhaps our adult ideas of play have begun to encroach upon the child’s imaginative exploration of the outdoor environment (Magennis) [In Press]. 

Perhaps as adults we need to remember the child’s imagination needs an opportunity to grow and extend, if they don’t see it, they imagine and create; while the adult waits and wonders, is it our stifled abilities, which we are portraying into these beautiful and purposeful areas.  Have we lost sight of the true meaning behind the teachings of Montessori and others? Why do we feel the need to bring in tree stumps for children to act as seats, why not allow them to decide where to sit themselves, why intervene…  Why do we feel the need when sharing small world toys and experiences, to provide the resources, why not allow the children to engage their imaginations and utilise what nature has provided.  

The fact is that my research has shown that we as adults are afraid that the child will encounter germs, they might cut themselves, get dirty, parents will disapprove; and yet we continually discuss the value of natural outdoor environments for enhancing the child’s development, while the true meaning of nature is lost in the fears that society now throws at us.  The truth is that outdoor learning, and playing outdoors can often mean two completely different things, depending on how we the adult visualise that outdoor environment.


Johnson, K. (2013) “Montessori and nature study: Preserving wonder through school gardens,” in Montessori life, 25(3) 36.

Joyce, R. (2012) Outdoor learning: Past and Present, Maidenhead, England: Open University Press.

Magennis, M. (nd) Exploring outdoor environments through the child’s eyes, [In Press].

Mooney, G. (2013) Theories of Childhood, 2nd Ed: An Introduction to Dewey, Montessori, Erickson, Piaget and Vygotsky, St. Paul, MN: Redleaf Press.

Nelson, E. (2012) Cutlivating Outdoor Classrooms: Designing and implementing child-centered Learning Environments, St. Paul, MN: Redleaf Press.

Peacock, E. (2018) Bringing the wonder of the natural world to Kids, Hopestandards.com [online 22nd Feb, 2019].

Prisk, C., and Cusworth, H. (2018) “From Muddy hands and dirty faces…. To higher grades and happy places: Outdoor Learning and Play at Schools around the world” in Outdoor Classroom Day, 17 (52).

Tuuling, L., Õun, T., and Ugaste, A. (2018)  “Teachers’ opinions on utilizing outdoor learning in the preschools of Estonia”, Journal of Adventure Education and Outdoor Learning, DOI: 10.1080/14729679.2018.1553722

Published by Dr M

An Early Years Specialist in the areas of Education, Psychology, and Research, I am passionate about curriculum development and the benefits of IT in Early years for promoting creative thought, autonomy, and innovative teaching and learning. Throughout my career I have also been involved in raising awareness of the importance of outdoor play, the provision of training and development in Adult Education; improved Parental involvement, and also Psychological development and behavioural analysis particularly in children under 6yrs. As a Counsellor and Psychotherapist, I work with parents, schools, and preschools as consultant and mentor offering support and advice, training, and quality assurance with the aim of encouraging standardisation and recognition amongst the Early Years profession.

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