Designed for play

 Planning a stimulating outside learning environment

 For play specialist Prue Walsh, effective outdoor play learning in early childhood is the key to later social, emotional and cognitive development. Providing the right kind of natural and stimulating spaces in which play can progress and develop in the early years is therefore essential. 

First principles: it’s all about nature

Effective outside learning environment are, first and foremost, based on an understanding of young children’s development and play needs.  Early childhood playgrounds require an enticing, richly enjoyable setting, where children can explore, and try out new ideas.  The design must accommodate a developing pattern of usage which will markedly change during the first five years of life and which lays the foundations of a wide variety of skills that sustain resilience and capacity to cope throughout life.


Early Years to Y13 conference.

Great practice. New perspective.

Hosted by 2017 TES  Finalist

Joseph Chamberlain  6FC

Simulating environment

Outdoor play and learning space must be carefully planned if they are to meet children’s needs that develop so quickly in the Early Years. What, then, are some starting points for planning that will stimulate interest and allow children the space in which to develop properly? Here are some essential ideas to consider:

  • Ensure sensory richness by providing an environment that offers a variety of textured plants and landforms which respond to changing seasons
  • Consider the importace of scent, colour, sound and touch in providing the basis for this richly stimulating environemnt
  • Plan an environment that adapts naturally to accommodate the varying climatic changes throughout the year
  • Landscape the area carefully, with a range of plants, shrubs and trees that offer different shade while enhancing natural landforms
  • Plan the space to include a variety of activities and equipment, both fixed and loose, set thoughtfully into the environment in order to facilitate a range of activities that develop both fine and gross motor skills
  • Progression – the space should offer the potential for a child to build on previous experiences which in turn will continue to sustain their future learning
  • A successful space will therefore suggest a multitude of potential usage to sustain ongoing inquiry and learning
  • A successful space will also be adaptable and provide a setting which entices them in and then draws out children’s interest and active engagement
  • Activities will be open-ended and arise from the imagination sparked by the experience of using the space
  • Larger fixed apparatus needs to be limited and carefully selected to ensure a wide variety of adaptable usage.  It is therefore at variance from the standard commercial / park playground installations which tend to offer a small number of “closed” activities that do not allow learning to develop.  Variety and flexibility are the key.
  • Allow space for running and more energetic activities


Download Prue’s introductory design guide

If these ideas appeal, and you want to get things moving, go into a little more depth by downloading the free PDF. Just click the picture.



Prue is a freelance play specialist, based in Brisbane Australia. The second edition of her classic design manual, Early Childhood Playgrounds: planning an outside learning environment was published in 2016 and can be ordered from Amazon:

See the International Teacher Magazine review of Prue’s book here:


Feature image from Brahmsee on Pixabay

Other images are also from Pixabay

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