Playing outside in the natural environment

Every child should have this right!

Helen Bilton has been an advocate, researcher and writer about outdoor play for the last 34 years and considers the impact of a well- run outdoor explorers club.

Outside play dwindling

Over the last couple of decades the number of children playing outside has dwindled. There is a fear amongst some that outside is a dangerous place,  with the increase in the amount of traffic and incidents of paedophile and terrorist attacks. Albeit the former is not on the increase it is just more evident with a global media.

The rise in mental illness

At the same time the percentage of children suffering with mental illnesses has risen. As a tutor in a University I am seeing a huge and steep rise in the number of students starting their studies already suffering with depression, anxiety, social phobia, eating disorders and so on. The school system is test and achievement driven. Everyone has to get an A*, and now at University the aspiration is everyone should get a 1st. So the pressure to succeed academically is intense. This starts from a very early age, with children being tested and labelled as they start school with an emphasis on what they cannot do, not what they can do.

No time “to be”

Many children don’t have time to be. They don’t have time to play with friends. And if they do very often it involves a technological gadget. And they sure don’t play outside much.

Five benefits of outdoor play

So does it matter? Well yes it does and I think it would help children to relax and cope with the demands put upon them by the school system if they could play outside in a well organised explorers club and every day.

  1. figure-4Firstly there are the physical health benefits. Children breathe in fresh air which is not full of germs. Their lungs get oxygen as opposed to a heady mix of goodness knows what when stuck in stuffy classrooms! They feel the light and sunlight on their bodies. This is not only good for the soul but is crucial for the synthesis of Vitamin D. Children have all levels of distance to look at which helps the muscles in the eyes- starring at a computer screen is causing more and more short sightedness.
  2. Outside there is more space than inside, even if there isn’t you feel as though there is! So children not only get a sense of freedom, they will be freer to move. So for heart and lungs, muscles and bones being outside helps those bodies as they grow. But also emotional freedom to be and find out.
  3. Children do not feel outside is controlled or owned by anyone. The classroom is felt to be controlled by the teacher, the home by the mother (usually). But no one controls outside. Consequently children feel freer and less judged. This means they are likely to ‘give it a go’ and have a ‘can do’ rather than ‘can’t’ attitude.
  4. Outside can offer more challenges. Trees to climb, weather to survive, stuff to manoeuvre. Challenges are good. Because they enable one to face the challenge, overcome the challenge and thereby be pleased with ones ability. If this is done repeatedly then ones confidence rises. So let me give an example. If I try to climb a tree or jump a stream or log I need to know about myself. I need to know if I feel okay to do it. Can I physically do it? What might I do to help myself to do it? Mentally, can I do it? If I fall or get wet will it be okay? These considerations, taken in milliseconds, are crucial to building the character of a person. Over repeated testing one finds out what one can do, will attempt and simply cannot do.

figure-3What about the adults who run the explorers club? Well they can gain too! They do need a positive attitude though. And everyone needs the right clothing. Waterproof trousers, coat, wellies, gloves and hat ensure you can stay out when it is raining hard and not get fed up.  And adults as they work and play with children become co-explorers.

The natural world is forever changing and adults and children can discover it together. It takes planning, organisation and management to create a school explorers club but the benefits are huge as you can see from the list above! As one child wrote about his explorers club- ‘being outside makes me feel happy and jolly and important. What I like about it is it gives me a chance to learn about other things’.



helen-bilton-2-300x269Dr Helen Bilton is Associate Professor at the University of Reading, England. She has researched and written extensively about the outdoor teaching and learning environment. Recently she has co -authored a book about one school’s approach to running an outdoor explorers club for children aged 3-11 years.



‘This unique book covers all aspects of outdoor practice from setting up and maintaining an outdoor site to the boundaries, support and effective communication that will help to create a safe and happy environment. It traces each term of the year and focuses on the importance of role play and imaginative learning, planning activities for all weather conditions and how the National Curriculum can be applied to outdoor exploring.’

Click on the book cover for more information.


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