The Ultimate Guide to Environmental Play


Environmental play

Through environmental play, children can learn and grow by engaging with the elements of nature, fostering creativity, curiosity, and sensory experiences. This hands-on experience with the world around them stimulates cognitive development, physical activity, emotional well-being, and social skills, providing a holistic approach to childhood development that’s both fun and educational.

What is environmental play?  

Environmental play nurtures growth and learning by utilising the environment where a child engages in play. There are various forms of environmental play: emotional environmental play, indoor environmental play, and outdoor environmental play.

Whether it be indoors or outside, these forms of play uniquely contributes to children’s development and well-being.

Given that most children spend a significant portion of their learning time indoors, the indoor environment encompasses the setup and resources available within spaces like classrooms or nursery areas. These environments need to offer plentiful resources, engaging activities, vibrant colours and patterns, and interactive games to keep children enthralled and motivated.

Being outdoors is essential for childhood development and also for delivering a comprehensive and enjoyable learning experience. Outdoor play is crucial for promoting both physical and mental health in children, fostering increased physical activity, the formation of friendships, and the development of various skills, including motor, communication, and social abilities.

Both indoor and outdoor environmental play can facilitate personal connections fostering joy and emotional expression. It’s essential to create environments that meet children’s emotional needs, supporting their play and learning from a young age and exemplifying the significance of emotional environmental play.

Playdale advocates for interaction with the environment through a variety of play items that promote outdoor play and exploration. Our Environmental Play range provides a straightforward yet captivating method for children to connect with nature, fostering a sense of respect and curiosity about their surroundings.

What does EYFS say about environmental play?

The Early Years Foundation Stage (EYFS) is a framework in the UK designed to guide the learning, growth, and care of children from birth to five years old. EYFS provides a roadmap for teachers, parents, and caregivers, showing them how to create enriching environments where children can play and learn.

EYFS recognises the importance of play and creating an enabling environment as vital parts of children’s development, showing how these factors help them grow physically, mentally, socially, and emotionally.

An enabling environment for children is a carefully crafted learning space designed to maximise their developmental opportunities in all areas of learning. These spaces are rich with resources that inspire exploration, creativity, and decision-making, fostering a love for learning. As highlighted in the EYFS framework, a crucial element of childhood learning is the presence of enabling environments.

These environments, complemented by teaching and support from adults, cater to children’s individual interests and “help them to build their learning over time.”

Why is outdoor play important in early years?

In the school playground, says Barry Leahey MBE, President of Playdale, “It’s crucial for children to play in a variety of environments because each setting offers unique opportunities for learning and development.”

Varied settings expose children to a range of sensory experiences, from the soft grass in a park to the rough bark of a tree, enhancing sensory development. Exploring different environments teaches children to adjust their play and helps foster adaptability and resilience. Each environment sparks curiosity and wonder, from discovering insects in a garden to observing wildlife in a forest, nurturing a lifelong love of learning.

Time spent outdoors encourages children to hold a deeper connection with nature, promoting environmental awareness, empathy, and stewardship for the planet.

“Access to playground equipment that facilitates interaction with nature is crucial for children’s development, and encourages physical activity,” says Barry. Climbing frames, balance beams, and obstacle courses promote gross motor skill development while allowing children to actively engage with the great outdoors.

Additionally, sand and water play and mud kitchens provide opportunities for sensory exploration and stimulation, with different textures enhancing hands-on play with natural materials.

Items such as composters, worm villas, and planters further facilitate interaction with nature, supporting environmental education through exploration and observation of the natural world and ecosystem dynamics.

How outdoor play helps childhood development?

Engaging in play across a variety of environments offers a wealth of benefits for childhood development. By immersing themselves in different settings, children have the opportunity to expand development across all areas of learning and beyond.

How does outdoor play help cognitive development?

Outdoor play offers numerous cognitive benefits. It promotes safe risk-taking as children navigate new environments, bolstering confidence and risk assessment skills. Exposure to diverse surroundings expands children’s understanding of the world, fostering adaptability and problem-solving abilities. Different settings can also inspire imaginative play, fostering creativity and storytelling abilities.

How does outdoor play help emotional development?

Outdoor play and time spent in nature contributes significantly to emotional development by promoting the release of endorphins and other feel-good neurotransmitters.

Playing outside stimulates the release of mood-boosting endorphins and can help  children process their emotions. This natural process enhances their happiness and well-being, creating a positive relationship with physical activity and promoting emotional development.

How does outdoor play help physical development?

The outdoors provides the perfect backdrop for children to embrace activities like jumping, running, and playing. It encourages children to leap over obstacles, bound across uneven surfaces, and explore different textures.

Interacting with the outdoor environment helps children develop their balance, agility, and spatial awareness. Open spaces ignite their sense of adventure and curiosity, allowing them to fully immerse themselves in the joy of jumping, running, and playing. It’s in the great outdoors where children can truly unleash their energy, unwind, and embrace the physical benefits of these activities.

How does outdoor play help social development?

Outdoor play is an invaluable opportunity for children to socially develop. Here, children engage with their friends and family, building essential social skills like communication and teamwork. Additionally, outdoor play provides opportunities for conflict resolution, sharing, and taking on leadership roles, promoting empathy and increased understanding.

Playgrounds bring everyone together and promote cultural awareness and inclusivity, laying the foundation for healthy social relationships in the future.

How does outdoor play help language development?

Outdoor play serves as a rich setting for nurturing language and communication abilities in children. Engaging in activities such as playing with others, exploring nature, and creating imaginary scenarios encourages children to communicate and express themselves verbally.

Here, they learn to negotiate, describe their experiences, and convey their thoughts and emotions, fostering vocabulary expansion and linguistic development.

How does outdoor play help mathematical development?

Outdoors, there’s math everywhere – shapes, colours, patterns, and more. When children play outside, they’re doing math without even realising it, helping them learn and grow and providing opportunities for them to explore concepts in real-world settings such as risk-taking and developing problem-solving skills through play.

How to promote indoor and outdoor play

Schools play a crucial role in promoting play-based learning experiences that boost creativity, critical thinking, and social-emotional skills.

Creating role-play and pretend play areas, such as dramatic play corners,  encourage imaginative play and storytelling. These spaces allow children to take on different roles, explore social dynamics, and develop communication and empathy skills.

Schools should motivate children to explore diverse textures and ingredients, nurturing both sensory growth and imaginative play. Outside mud kitchens within a play area offer an array of mud supplies like soil and water, complemented by natural features such as rocks and vegetation.

Emphasise the importance of learning, urging children to participate in collaborative activities, solve problems, and enact roles while concocting their muddy masterpieces.

How to make an outdoor play area

Creating an engaging outdoor play area involves careful consideration of diverse elements to cater to various interests and developmental needs. The best outdoor play areas encompass a spectrum of experiences, from physical challenges to imaginative exploration.

Incorporating elements like climbing structures, swings, and slides can stimulate physical activity and foster gross motor skills. Sensory experiences, such as musical play, and play panels provide opportunities for sensory exploration and creativity. Additionally, integrating educational components like outdoor shelters and classrooms can support learning across different subjects outdoors.

With Playdale’s extensive design capabilities and expertise, specifying the perfect outdoor area is simple and seamless. Our support ensures that your new play area is not just fun but also safe, durable, and tailored to the unique needs of the children and the environment.

Whether you’re looking to revamp an existing space or create a brand-new playground, our team is ready to assist you every step of the way. Contact us today to learn more about how we can collaborate to design the perfect outdoor play area.


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