Dr Karen Boardman, Jackie Sumner and Silvia Cont

Every child has the right to play and learn outdoors. The United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC) outlines Article 31 – the right to play as “Every child has the right to relax, play and take part in a wide range of cultural and artistic activities” (UNICEF Summary). However, we know that many young children spend long days in our nursery settings, without access to outdoor areas, often negotiated within the curriculum structure of the busy routine of the day.

The benefits of access to outdoors have been widely researched (Axelsson 2023; Bilton 1998, 2014, 2020; Knight 2011, 2013; Morling and Sandberg 2015; White 2008, 2011;).  A recent literature review of provision for babies and toddlers by Kemp and Josephidou (2023) highlights once again the significance of the knowledgeable practitioner on the quality of outdoor provision for young children. Other themes identified from a review of 21 research papers include:

  • space to be physically active
  • risky play opportunities
  • babies and their safety
  • the challenges of creating appropriate and accessible environments. 

When we think about children playing outdoors in their settings, this often involves the ideal scenario of free-flow play, with open access to a natural outdoor environment, which is vastly different to their indoor spaces. Do these outdoor environments offer freedom, risk, space, choice, ethos of natural outdoor experiences and consider agency?

Much has been written about Forest School (FS) as an approach for children engaging in outdoor play. Despite the Forest School Association Sixth Principle describing the FS ethos as using ‘a range of learner-centred processes to create a community for development and learning’, sometimes the child-led nature of the approach is not prioritised. According to McCree (2014, pp.324-325), a standardised and learning goals-driven education system uses FS in its ‘light and ultra-light’ forms, moving away from the approach ethos, so that indoor prescriptive education practices are simply transferred outdoors.

This use of FS often offers no space for children’s free flow play, which we discussed in our ACRE 2023 presentations. The pivotal role of practitioners significantly impacts on how adults support children and their freedom to play. We considered that practitioners may not be ‘outdoor practitioners’ but act as ‘practitioners outdoors’. They are first trained and developed as Early Years Professionals and implement their practice supporting children’s development indoors within a classroom setting. As such, when it comes to supporting children’s development in the context of out-of-the-classroom, practitioners then face the challenges of transitioning from the indoor to the outdoor setting (Connelly, 2019). Therefore, professionals transition from the status of ‘outdoor immigrant’, initially not feeling at ease outdoors with children, to ‘outdoor native’ (Leather, 2018, p.15), where they support children’s free play, learning and exposure to adequate risk. In addition, Ouvry and Futardo (2020) highlight that practitioners also need to feel confident in their own abilities to support children’s learning outdoors.

The world of outdoor learning is a messy concept and one that is not necessarily enhanced with an adult-led prescriptive focus, such as the FS approach in practice here in England. It is obviously a very different experience for children in Scandinavian countries where FS first originated, as young children already have agency there.

To ensure our future professionals are confident ‘outdoor practitioners’, we have our own Forest Edge site here at Edge Hill University, where the focus is on ‘learning in nature’ rather than ‘learning about nature’.