Outdoor Play in School

Outdoor play and the curriculum

  • Outdoor learning in Northern Ireland

“The outdoor area provides young children with one of the best possible environments in which to learn. Any adult who has watched children playing in a well-planned and well-resourced outdoor area with involved adults will have observed the joy and excitement they experience as they learn new skills and make fresh discoveries”.

Learning Outdoors in the Early Years: A Resource Book (CCEA)

Teachers are required to provide a range of outdoor educational experiences for children across the primary and secondary sectors in Northern Ireland.

The Council for the Curriculum, Examinations and Assessments (CCEA) in Northern Ireland has produced a helpful resource guide for outdoor play and learning in the Early Years.

The resource serves as a comprehensive toolkit for educators to develop outdoor learning through play in relation to the core Areas of Learning identified in the Northern Ireland Early Years Curriculum (The Arts, Language and Literacy, Mathematics and Numeracy, The World Around Us, Personal Development and Mutual Understanding, Physical Development and Movement). 

Suggested outdoor areas include: Imaginative Area, Creative Area (Art/Design & Music), Snack Area, Horticulture Areas (Gardening/Wild & Digging), Large-Scale Construction Area, Sand and Water Areas, Quiet Area, Large-Movement Area, Small-Equipment Area, Climbing Area, and Wheeled-Vehicle Area. 

The outdoor environment can be used to support innovative and inclusive education for all learners, and the ideas in the resource can be adapted and applied to different key stages and abilities. Time outdoors should be incorporated into curriculum planning. Ideas to support outdoor learning for autistic pupils using sensory activities can be found here.

  • Outdoor learning in the Republic of Ireland

The curriculum in the Republic of Ireland is set by the National Council for Curriculum and Assessment (NCCA). 

Aistear: the Early Childhood Curriculum Framework acknowledges the importance of taking play and learning outdoors, stating that:

“Using the outdoor environment can often give children more space and freedom to move, to explore, and to express themselves, which in turn can bring even greater enjoyment, satisfaction and learning.”

The framework contains a specific section on Learning and Developing Through Play, which gives advice for supporting children who find it difficult to play (p.59), and guidance for organising and resourcing the play area to meet the diverse needs of pupils. 

It is recommended that the outdoor play space is organised to include (p.57):

  • Interest areas (“A defined area for wheelie toys, a climbing area, a planting area, a wildlife area, feeders to attract birds and butterflies, a space to play with natural materials such as sand, water and mud, and a quiet area with seating”).
  • Social and personal space (“The adult creates space for children to play with others and to play alone… There might also be a quiet corner and a seating area inside and outside where a child can spend some time alone”). 
  • Outdoor/indoor space (“The adult ensures easy access between the inside and the outside and provides a clear view of the outdoors for all children when they are inside, for example using low level windows”).
  • Storage (“Materials are in the same locations so that children can find and return them…Children have time and space to pursue their own play ideas and can find, use and return materials which are of particular interest to them”).

The framework states that resources should reflect the diversity of the pupils in terms of gender, ability, age and culture, and should be sufficient for the number of children taking part in play outside. Open-ended resources which encourage hands-on experiences are recommended to meet children’s specific physical, sensory and learning needs. Natural materials such as sticks, stones, water and leaves are abundant in the outdoors and promote creative and imaginative sensory play. 

The document highlights that most things that can be done inside can also be done outside, and suggests having ‘windy day’ and ‘rainy day’ boxes ready along with wellies and waterproof jackets to enable children to play outside in all types of weather. 

Ideas for a windy day box include:

  • Streamers
  • Chimes
  • Windmills
  • Kites
  • Bubbles
  • Weather charts
  • Relevant picture books

Ideas for a rainy day box include:

  • Umbrellas
  • Sieves
  • Toy boats
  • Rubber ducks
  • Containers for gathering water
  • Funnels
  • Charts to measure rainfall
  • Tape to measure the size of puddles
  • Relevant picture books

Click here for webinars on outdoor learning in the primary school which can be viewed on the NCCA website.

  • Outdoor play in secondary school

Outdoor play is often overlooked at secondary level, but its position in children and young people’s health and wellbeing remains just as vital. 

Learning through Landscapes – a leading UK-based charity dedicated to enhancing outdoor learning and play for children – offer a range of free outdoor lesson ideas for all ages, including 12+, while examples of outdoor spaces designed with adolescents in mind can be found here. 

  • Free play

Daily free play is essential for health and wellbeing, but can be a challenging part of the school day for autistic children and young people who may struggle with the lack of structure, social demands, and sensory sensitivities in the playground. 

The following strategies suggested by education professionals as part of Middletown’s Outdoor Play Survey may help to support inclusive outdoor play for all children in your environment:

Have clear expectations and preparation for going outdoors

Children can be prepared verbally (e.g. use circle time to discuss playground rules) and visually (e.g. visual timetable, transition timer) before going outside. It may help to model desired behaviours (e.g. turn taking) in the classroom through pre-teaching and role play, and involve the children in rule making.

Use visual supports

A wide range of visual supports can be used in the outdoor environment. These include social narratives, communication aids, visual instructions on play equipment, ground markings and symbols. It can be helpful for staff to wear visual supports on lanyards. 

Consider the layout and design of the space

Dividing the space into different activity zones and establishing clear physical boundaries can help children to make choices in their play and keep everyone safe. 

Provide some structured activity

Providing structure through pre-taught games and activity stations can support children who struggle with the unstructured nature of break and lunch times to engage in play. 

Train all staff in facilitating play and create an outdoor play policy

Capacity building to ensure all staff are confident in providing meaningful outdoor play experiences could help improve the quality of play for all children, while a dedicated outdoor play policy would ensure a consistent approach throughout the setting.

  • Developing an outdoor play policy 

Although most schools offer outdoor play as part of the daily routine, many do not have a dedicated outdoor play policy. A policy can be advantageous in supporting best practice in the areas of outdoor play and learning, and communicating its value to all invested parties.

Why do we need outdoor play policy?

  • To ensure the protection and fulfilment of every child’s right to play under the UNCRC (Article 31).
  • To enable every child to avail of the multiple benefits of outdoor play, including health and wellbeing, social interaction, physical activity, and mental resilience. 
  • To ensure a consistent approach and shared vision regarding the implementation of outdoor play throughout the setting. 
  • To take account of and ensure the effective use of outdoor resources. 
  • To provide guidance regarding staff roles, risk/benefit assessment and safety procedures in the outdoor play environment. 
  • To underpin the importance of outdoor play and its vital role in the school day. 

It is important that the outdoor play policy relates to all ages, stages and abilities, and contains guidance on equality and inclusion. 

The Council for Learning Outside the Classroom suggests a policy for outdoor play and learning should include the following: 

1. An agreed vision, rationale and overall aims of play and outdoor learning at the setting. 

2. Planning – how learning and development is supported in the outdoor environment for all ages and levels, be this within your setting’s grounds or off-site. You may want to include details of particular areas of learning. 

3. Roles and responsibilities – include brief details of how the practitioner will support and extend children’s play and learning outdoors. You may want to also include a brief list of duties outdoors, such as Health and Safety checks, updating diaries and observations, care of resources and equipment.

4. Resourcing – include here the types of resources available for the children’s play, learning and development. 

5. Observation and assessment – outline how observation outdoors will help to build up a holistic picture of individual children’s development. 

6. Parents – you may want to mention how parents will be communicated to regarding provision outdoors, including off site provision as well as that in the setting’s grounds, and how parents who volunteer to support outdoor learning are managed/guided. 

7. Health and safety – this section could include details of risk assessment, accident procedures, ‘checking the grounds’ procedure, rules for safety and behaviour management (in a positive context).

8. Weather – you may want to include guidelines on how you will respond to different weather conditions, i.e. guidance on clothing and protection in strong sun, wet weather and cold conditions. 

9. Off-site experiences – this section can include the types of off-site learning opportunities provided, for example how you may use the local park and going further afield for specific outings. You may also want to refer to your charging policy and include details of ratios, first aid, transport, risk assessment and insurance as well as other details pertinent to your setting. 

10. Equality and inclusion – include here statements about how you will ensure all children, whatever their ability, are able to play and explore the outdoors within the setting’s ground and further afield; gender issues; how provision in the afternoons will be of the same quality as that of the morning sessions; respect for cultural issues; disability awareness and inclusion. 

11. Monitoring and evaluation – monitoring and evaluating learning and play outdoors are important to gauge the effectiveness of practice and the policy. Existing procedures within the setting should be appropriate and used to inform any improvements.

You can use this template to encourage children and young people to participate in policy making in your setting. 

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