Learning Environments

When Availability of Outdoor Play Space Is an Issue

A boy in in warm clothes is outside examining brick planter wallOutdoor play and exploration experiences may take place in different types of spaces and places. However, some programs are challenged with limited or lack of outdoor play space, or few safe places to go. In these situations, it is especially important for program leaders, staff, and families to find ways of providing infants and toddlers with experiences that connect them with nature and opportunities for some active outdoor play and exploration.

Although there may be no easy answers, it is still important to figure out what outdoor accommodations might be reasonable and appropriate for programs and families, given less than ideal circumstances. Here are some possible options:1

  • Use sidewalks as paths for wheeled toys and equipment
  • Use sides of buildings as art walls
  • Provide "loose parts" to transform the space
  • Add logs, tree stumps, and smooth boulders to create new spaces and encourage large-motor experiences
  • Use neighborhood resources such as recreation centers, parks, open fields, and school or public playgrounds. Create a "playground-in-a-box" (e.g., a wheeled utility cart filled with blankets, a parachute, milk crates, balls, and other toys and equipment that can be taken to a more open space)
  • Take children on short outings using wagons, buggies, and strollers. Allow children who can walk to do so for at least part of the time so they get the benefit of physical exercise
  • Locate and use community gardens
  • Plant nonpoisonous flowers in boxes or small gardens in wash tubs that are safely accessible to children and adults2
  • Hang bird feeders, wind chimes, and banners where children can see them
  • Bring nature inside. Consider putting buckets or other containers outside when it rains or snows, and then bring them in to see how much was collected. When possible, open windows (no more than four inches and using safety guards) to allow fresh air to come in. Provide safe, age- and developmentally appropriate natural objects and materials for infants and toddlers to explore. These can include pinecones, small tree cookies (i.e., cross-sections of branches that show growth rings), twigs, leaves, snow, dirt, acorns, rocks, and shells. Make sure these explorations are supervised; it is developmentally appropriate for very young children to put objects in their mouths. Keep in mind, that objects that may be safe for older toddlers to explore are not safe for younger children
  • Draw children's attention to natural events they can see through the window, such as rain, snow, lightning, or wind blowing trees or leaves. Invite children to touch windowpanes to see if they are warm or cold. Point out and describe changes in outdoor conditions (e.g., how the amount of shady or sunny places changes depending on the time of day or how the light changes when clouds cover the sun)

In some programs, families may be affected by unsafe neighborhood conditions and reluctant to take their children outside as part of the family's daily life. The most important thing to do is to talk with families about what is meaningful, realistic, and possible for them and their children. Some of these suggestions might be appropriate for families to try. In some cases, there may be parks, playgrounds, or other community resources that are safely accessible to families. Visit them with family members. Talk about how simple toys and materials such as boxes, pots, small wash tubs, or small pails might be used with children outdoors and where that play could take place, even for a short period of time.

Loose Parts

Staff and families in center-based, home-based, and family child care programs can use "loose parts"3 to enhance outdoor play opportunities for infants and toddlers. The term refers to "easily moved materials that may be used by children while playing."4 For infants and toddlers, loose parts are toys and materials that are safe, not fixed in place, and can be used in many ways. They are materials that children collect, put together, mix, separate, stack, fill and dump, and line up. Indoor toys, equipment, and materials that are brought outside are considered loose parts; so are natural materials such as tree cookies, stones, twigs, seed pods, leaves, water, and sand. Other ideas for loose parts include:

  • Fabric
  • Containers
  • Polyvinyl chloride (PVC) pipes
  • Sponges
  • Wagons
  • Small sleds
  • Plastic milk crates
  • Backpacks
  • Wide, sanded boards that are short enough for toddlers to pick up, carry, or drag

Loose parts are important for several reasons.5 For example, they:

  • Encourage children to manipulate the environment and provide opportunities for creativity and problem-solving
  • Provide children with age-appropriate materials. Because these materials can be used in a variety of ways, each age group uses the materials in different and appropriate ways
  • Add novelty into the outdoor play environment. This is important for cognitively higher levels of play, such as symbolic play
  • Foster a wide variety of play behaviors, such as dumping and filling; lifting, moving, and carrying; and pretend, parallel, and cooperative play

1Greenman and Lindstrom, Caring Spaces, Learning Places, 299; Greenman et al., Prime Times, 298, 322.

2American Academy of Pediatrics; American Public Health Association; National Resource Center for Health and Safety in Child Care and Early Education; and Maternal and Child Health Bureau, Department of Health and Human Services, Caring for Our Children (CFOC), "Even Plants Can Be Poisonous."

3Dempsey and Strickland, "Why to Include Loose Parts"; Greenman et al., Prime Times, 297

4Dempsey and Strickland, "Why to Include Loose Parts."

5Ibid.