Learning Environments

Considerations for Creating Safe and Stimulating Outdoor Play Spaces

During an outdoor group socialization experience, 18-month-old Carrie toddles over to the vegetable garden that a group of home-based families planted during a series of socializations. Nadine (her mom), Lawrence (her dad), and Tanya (their home visitor) follow her. Nadine asks Carrie if she would like to taste a pea pod. Carrie smiles but doesn't respond. Tanya bends down and picks a pea pod. She encourages Nadine and Lawrence to do the same. Tanya says, "Watch! Your mommy, daddy, and I are going to eat a pea pod!" They bite into the pods. "Hmmm," says Tanya, "this pea pod is crunchy!" "My pea pod tastes so sweet! You would like it, Carrie. Want to try one?" asks Nadine. Carrie looks at her mom's face, reaches her hand out, and plucks a plump pea pod off the vine. She hands it to her dad. He opens the pod, takes out a pea, and gives it to Carrie. Carrie puts the pea in her mouth and smiles as she chews. "Pea pa," she says. "Do you like it?" asks Lawrence. "I think you do. You're smiling!" "Pea pa," says Carrie again. Nadine, Lawrence, and Tanya smile at each other. Carrie has tried a new food and said a new word!

It's important to know what makes a good outdoor play space for infants and toddlers. Good outdoor play spaces:

  • Provide safe and stimulating places to play and explore
  • Accommodate the differing needs, skills, and interests of young infants, mobile infants, and toddlers, including those with suspected delays and identified disabilities
  • Support nurturing adult-child interactions
  • Accommodate adult needs for comfort
  • Reflect staff and family beliefs, values, and culture
  • Incorporate natural elements and native plant life  

Like in the group socialization scenario, program leaders, staff, and families consider what they want infants and toddlers to experience in the outdoor space. They decide on the materials, equipment, and other space design elements that support these experiences, as well as fit the size, shape, and physical features of the space and the climate of the location. In other words, programs individualize their outdoor play spaces. Whether programs modify an existing space or create a new one, designing outdoor play spaces provides a wonderful opportunity to involve families and collaborate with local resources and partners. Programs may find partnership opportunities with agricultural extension agencies, plant nurseries, landscape professionals, playground architects, artists, civic organizations, and businesses.

Center-based outdoor play spaces should be designed according to the guidelines in the most recent edition of the Public Playground Safety Handbook from the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC). Home-based programs that provide socialization spaces with outdoor areas or use public playgrounds during socializations may also want to look at the Public Playground Safety Handbook for relevant information. Family child care providers who have backyards can review Outdoor Home Playground Safety Handbook.

All programs can review relevant sections of the Caring for Our Children (CFOC) special collection, Caring for Infants and Toddlers in Early Care and Education (I/T). The Appendix also contains more outdoor play space design considerations. Programs are encouraged to review the information and think about how the design elements might apply to their outdoor spaces.