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8.3: Managing Space - Outdoor Learning Environments

  • Page ID
    • Gayle Julian & Sharene Leek

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    Children can have rich experiences in a thoughtful outdoor setting. No matter if the child is attending a large center or a family home setting, the outdoor environment should be responsive to each child’s interests and needs. The natural environment is unique in its ability to respond to the depth with which children engage. The outdoor environment should offer exploration as well as meet physical needs of children. Often teachers think of a child’s physical development and how to get them moving outdoors, however, children can also learn a great deal from a robust outdoor environment. Concepts learned outdoors include physics, biology, botany, and geology. Nevertheless, these are just the starting point to the enormous learning potential of the outdoor environment. As the adult in the space, be observant, engage and play along with children, relax, and educate families on the benefits. One of the biggest stressors in a teacher’s day is outdoor play and not from the environment itself, but from parents not wanting children dirty, wet, or sick. As I always explained to parents, the nice thing about children is they are washable. If clothing was an issue, I offered changes of clothes that children could change into before going outside. Lastly, viruses and bacterial germs are what make us sick, not rain. If rain made us sick, no one would ever bathe. Additionally, the more children play outdoor the healthier they are, the germs that make us sick are not as concentrated as they are when we are indoors. In other words, get children outside!

    Outdoor Activity Zones

    Just like indoor environments have activity zones, outdoor environments have zones with distinct purposes for outdoor play.

    Transition Zone: the transition zone is the area where children enter and exit the outdoor space. This allows children to see what is available to them in the space and begin to make choices about where they would like to play. This should also be an area where children can safely wait for the teacher or gather as a group together.

    Active Play Zone: this is a space that allows children to run, jump, skip, throw balls and ride or pull wheeled toys and tricycles. This might also include big grassy areas if possible and equipment for sliding and swinging. Many places allow for climbing structures, tunnels, and ramps.

    Natural Elements Zone: this area includes plants, dirt, rocks, trees, grass, water. You could also provide mud, dirt, and sand for digging. Some centers might also include garden areas, and this is the ideal place to put up a bird feeder for observation.

    Image 8.9 Playing in the Sand is licensed under CC by 1.0

    Creative Zone: this area is a place for children to create messy art that you may not want to do in the inside environment, or a place for children to gather to complete puzzles or use tabletop activities like puzzles, games, or books.

    Social/Dramatic Zone: this area gives children the area to practice social and dramatic play and can include props. This area outdoors might also include stages or playhouses.

    Materials for Outdoor Environments

    Everything that is included in an indoor environment can also be included in an outdoor environment. Books can be brought out and space provided for sitting and reading in the fresh air, materials to enhance and support large motor movement and elements that encourage learning like magnifying glasses, pullies, ramps, and materials that are for balance, push, pull, and ride.

    Additional items to include in an outdoor learning environment are materials for:

    • Art: Art outside can be messy and spacious, like marble painting in a small pool with golf balls, or finger painting on the windows. Water spray bottles can create art projects.
    • Gardening: tool for planting, maintaining, and caring for the garden area. Children are often times more likely to try or eat healthy food they have grown.
    • Woodworking: While woodworking can be scary for some teachers, the value of including woodworking into a space is too valuable not to consider.
    • Music with unconventional items, such as hanging pots and pans on a lower fence can give toddlers some music time—just at the right height.
    • Bubbles are perfect for outdoors!

    The Role of Licensing in Environments

    The role of licensing is to ensure health and safety measures are in place and are followed. This does not mean we do not allow children much needed outdoor time or when we do provide outdoor time, we limit their activity. This is the time for children to expel all their pent-up energy, breathe deeply, and engage their large muscles. The Washington Administrative Code (WAC) does have requirements for outdoor spaces. WAC 110-300-0145 outline 12 outdoor licensing rules including

    • fencing requirements
    • amount of space
    • what the space should include
    • and other safety rules.

    The 12 leading causes of outdoor learning environment injuries are: inadequate fall zone, improper protective surfacing, protrusion and entanglements hazards, entrapment openings, trip hazards, insufficient equipment spacing, lack of supervision, age-appropriate activities, lack of maintenance, Pinch, crush, shearing and sharp edge hazards, platforms with no guardrails, and dangerously designed equipment.

    It is important to do safety sweeps of your outdoor space frequently. Inspecting outdoor play areas for debris, standing water, snow or ice, natural objects that may have become unsafe in changing weather and other human factors such as tripping hazards or litter should be cleaned up properly.


    It is imperative to provide chances for children of all ages to find an outlet for their need to move about in a meaningful context. What does it mean to be accessible? Making sure that entry openings are 11-24” and turn radius is 60”. Children have a reach range of 20-36” for a child 2-5 years old and 18-40” for a child 6-12 years old. If children have mobility aid devices, having a firm resilient surface supports their ability to move freely around the environment, and any outdoor paths, walkways and stairs should be clearly marked and free of obstruction. Also, consider that for every 2-4 elevated components of an outdoor space, there would be at least one at ground level entry and the ground level entry should prove at least one type of activity.

    The size of large gross motor equipment should be developmentally appropriate for all children and be sure to have enough equipment that children can use it without long waiting times. Storage should take into consideration the amount of time it takes to clean-up outdoors and labeled clearly.

    Loose Parts

    While large climbing structures and equipment have developmental purposes, they are also not as engaging to children over time. There is not much for a child to do with a slide for 30 minutes. However, using loose parts can increase movement, interest in outdoor play, and educational opportunities. Some loose parts include balls, hula-hoops, magnifying glasses, bikes (helmets), books, blocks, dramatic play materials, and art materials. It might also include recyclables such as boxes, egg cartons, PVC pipes, milk cartons or crates that children can use for construction. While this list of loose parts could be pages long, the benefit of including a variety and quantity of loose parts in an outdoor learning environment is never ending. Some of those benefits include independence, self-regulation, and allows children to explore their world and make decisions.


    Do you feel the WAC prohibits play in any way?

    What are some challenges for ensuring accessibility for all?

    This page titled 8.3: Managing Space - Outdoor Learning Environments is shared under a CC BY-SA license and was authored, remixed, and/or curated by Gayle Julian & Sharene Leek.