Playing & Learning Outdoors

Exploring Play and the Nature of Play

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Now in myth and ritual the great instinctive forces of civilized life have their origin: law and order, commerce and profit, craft and art, poetry, wisdom and science. All are rooted in the primeval soil of play.”

― Johan Huizinga, Dutch historian

For the vast majority of children, play is a constant and defining feature of their childhood experience. Almost nothing comes easier or more naturally to the growing child, yet play remains a core developmental tool of inestimable value. Though all children mimic many aspects of the frolicsome behaviour of the young of other species, they also develop an early interest in objects. This increasingly complex and playful manipulation of objects is one key element which takes human play well beyond the realms of play activity recorded elsewhere in the animal kingdom.

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The nature of playfulness

Young children’s physical and mental predisposition towards such behaviour is consistently described as ‘playful’. As early as 360 BC, Greek philosopher Plato refers to children as ‘overflowing with playfulness and pleasure’, and Voce (2016) has more recently reminded us of the child’s ‘playful instincts to explore, manipulate and discover’. Developing this concept, Figure 5.1 outlines features which Thomas and Harding (2011) believe are common traits shared by playful children.

Figure 5.1 Attributes of playfulness (Inspired by Thomas and Harding, 2011)

This ‘important disposition’, often enjoyed in the company of like-minded others, demands the exercise of imagination and the use of objects and materials – which are usually meant to symbolise other things. Choosing the flow of the activity can be random and impulsive, thus requiring the participants to exercise a degree of tolerance and self-regulation, but the play focus is always important. Communication is continuous and informed by a shared understanding of both verbal and non-verbal signals, and when performed under optimum conditions, the whole process of acting playfully becomes an intensely enjoyable spiral of creativity.

Spontaneous play

An early pioneer of the modern era, Isaacs valued outdoor settings and was one of the first to comment upon the rich learning outcomes which children often achieved through engagement in such spontaneous play. Regarding children as natural explorers capable of reason and reflection, Isaacs was struck by the types of content which occurred during play episodes. Figure 5.2 below illustrates her observation that these activities could be usefully considered to fall within three categories. The first of these, she noted, was an abiding enthusiasm for movement – coupled with a desire to secure mastery of its many aspects. Secondly, she observed children exhibited an insatiable curiosity concerning the material world they encountered, which they again sought to explore and master. Lastly, this all-consuming engagement with the ‘world without’ was balanced by an equal fascination with the ‘world within’, which allowed unlimited access to anything their emerging creativity could devise.

spontaneous play Isaacs
Figure 5.2 Spontaneous play (Inspired by Isaacs, 1932)

Hutt’s taxonomy

In a later analysis of the play context, Hutt’s taxonomy of play (Hutt, 1979) splits playful behaviour into three groups of activity:

epistemic play – which children use to satisfy their curiosity, and learn about their environment;

ludic play – when children use their imaginations to create fantasy and amusement;

games with rules – which comprise structured activities usually governed by negotiated rules.

Shown in graphic form below (Figure 5.3), Hutt divides these major groups into many sub-categories, with problem solving and skill development falling within epistemic play; symbolic and repetitive behaviour considered a part of ludic play; and games with rules broken down to distinguish between cooperative and competitive contests, and games of chance juxtaposed with games of skill. As in many adult sports and pastimes, games with rules are cloaked in rituals and conventions intricately associated with the game itself.

Vygotsky’s proximal zone

Whilst both Hutt and Isaacs acknowledge the critical importance of play in supporting and shaping the young child’s interior and exterior existence, Vygotsky focused on its inherent implications for learning and saw one of the most powerful benefits of children’s play-oriented disposition as being its unfailing ability to drive maturity and advancement:

‘In play a child is always above his average age, above his daily behaviour; in play it is as though he were a head taller than himself. As in the focus of a magnifying glass, play contains all developmental tendencies in a condensed form; in play it is as though the child were trying to jump above the level of his normal behaviour.’ (Vygotsky, 1967).

Interpreting this state of heightened awareness in terms of his theory of proximal development, Vygotsky believed that:

‘A child’s greatest achievements are possible in play, achievements that will tomorrow become his basic level of real action and morality. It is the essence of play that a new relation is created… between situations in thought and real situations’. (Vygotsky, 1978)

Figure 5.3 Hutt’s taxonomy of play (Inspired by Hutt, 1979)

The outdoor perspective

The outdoor world abounds in stimulation and opportunities for free-flowing play and learning. And from the child’s perspective, it also brings the added bonus of being relatively free of close adult regulation. Apart from being ‘the brain’s favourite way of learning’ (Ackerman, 1999), the authors of a play literature review (jointly commissioned by the National Children’s Bureau and Play England) explain that: ‘All aspects of development and learning are related in play, particularly the affective and cognitive domains’; adding the further observation that: ‘When children have time to play, their play grows in complexity and becomes more cognitively and socially demanding’. (Santer, Griffiths and Goodall, 2007).

Consequently, the reviewing authors recommend outdoor play as the optimum vehicle for the development of young children, offering their own compilation of its many advantages, summarised in the diagram below:

benefits of outdoor play
Figure 5.4 Developmental benefits of outdoor free play (Inspired by Santer,Griffiths & Goodall, 1979)

Outdoor play: developmental domains

Whilst highlighting the essential ‘holistic nature of play’, Thomas and Harding nevertheless find it helpful to consider the nuanced detail of playing and learning outdoors in the context of a separate examination of five developmental domains. (See Figure 5.5)

outdoor play - learning domains
Figure 5.5 Playing and learning outdoors (Inspired by Thomas and Harding, 2011)


Even though young children may not have developed all of the capabilities required for formal learning, learning through physical activity out in the fresh air is still a vibrant means of discovering their world. Opportunities for unrestricted movement and multiple sources of sensory stimulation develop motor skills and allow children to accumulate vivid layers of practical experience they will later draw upon as they begin to acquire abstract thought.


Real experiences and an environment which offers real problems to solve are vital elements guaranteed to spark a child’s cognitive functioning. Hot sun, windblown leaves, birdsong, rainbows and countless more seminal events and sensory encounters develop a child’s first-hand understandings at deeper and more meaningful levels than the best indoor tuition could hope to achieve. Furthermore, as outdoor landscapes endlessly change and evolve in response to seasons and weather patterns, this also helps children to gain a practical sense of time and place.

Defining The Outdoor Classroom – Download Free eBook

Defining the Outdoor Classroom


For children, the outdoors is a much more autonomous environment in which they enjoy a greater degree of freedom to learn and play. Given that these same freedoms apply equally to others, outdoor play also challenges and develops a child’s ability to assess and take risks, appropriately regulate their behaviour, and develop personal attributes such as perseverance and resilience.


The outdoors is an ideal environment for children to explore together. Activities such as building a den, constructing a mud dam, or working out how best to sow seeds and harvest fruit provide ample opportunity for sharing experience, resolving inevitable conflicts, providing peer support for the very youngest novices and much more. For many children, this also represents their very first chance to take part in non-family communal enterprises.


Within a generation or two, spending time in the natural world has ceased to be the commonplace childhood experience it once was. Thus opportunities for today’s children to engage with landscapes, weather, the lives of wild creatures, nature’s moods and seasons are now more precious than ever. It is only through direct experience of these immense life forces that children can be encouraged to develop a respectful relationship with the natural world, a sense of connection with our planet, and an understanding of the scale and context of their own being within this universe. Above all, they need the chance to be at one with nature and know a life enriched by the awe and wonder such experience can evoke.

This discussion concludes with a compelling description of the nature of typical outdoor play by child play expert Tim Gill, which provides powerful evidence of its unique ability to capture the soul of our young children:

‘Climbing a tree – working out how to start, testing for strength, feeling how the breeze in your face also sways the branches underfoot, glimpsing the changing vista through the leaves, dreaming about being king or queen of the jungle, shouting to your friends below once you’ve got as high as you dare – is an immersive, 360-degree experience that virtual or indoor settings simply cannot compare with.’ (Gill, 2009)

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