Benefits of a natural environment in outside play

Exploring the accessibility of the Nursery Garden all year round

Project author:

Project summary:

A study to investigate how we can make our garden more accessible for the children all year round


During the last few months the nursery has made some changes to our outdoor play space with changes that are still on going. This project looks at why we wanted to change our outdoor area. Together with the children and staff we have brought changes to the play space from the evidence I gathered. My intention for looking at the accessibility for outdoors is to encourage more children to use our outdoor facilities. I will then move on to discuss how we made the changes. Finally, I will share how the changes we have made impacted our outdoor play space.


Before under taking this project, I observed that a small number of children were the only ones that chose to play outdoors and ultimately this was on days when the weather was fine. I observed that depending on what was set up for the children to access there was no attraction for the children to go outdoors especially on days when the weather was less favourable. I also noted that the length of time that our outdoor space was available impacted on children going outside as some staff were less keen to go outdoors with the children. Our nursery garden is split into two halves separated with by a fence, during the time of doing this project due to Covid19 restrictions our nursery was still operating two spaces which meant each space got one half of the garden. The half of the garden we had has a playground in it which for the children that chose to go outside was all they wanted to play with. Our nursery garden very quickly becomes water logged and mud is everywhere which children were verbally expressing to us that they didn’t want to play because of the vast quantities of mud.


Working in a large nursery I decided it would be most appropriate to use my key group to help with this project. The research in this project is qualitative as I want to find out the children’s and staff opinions of our outdoor environment (Naughton et al, 2010). During key group times with my group of children I gathered their opinions through asking them questions through games, drawing pictures and through the play session. Another method of gathering data was through observations of the play space and how they children were using it. Once I had gathered the children’s views, I then collated all the information together to see any common themes that emerged.  I also gave the staff within my setting a questionnaire that they could anonymously fill out and return. The questionnaire asked staff what they felt the benefits of outdoor play was, how they viewed learning outdoors and barriers that prevented the children in our setting experiencing outdoor play. Before using different methods to find the information I made sure that I gained the permission of our gatekeeper, the children’s parents and I always listened to the children if they chose not to participate and the staff’s permission.

MacNaughton, G., Rolfe, AS., Siraj-Blatchford, I. (2010) Doing Early Childhood Research. International Perspectives on Theory and Practice 2nd edn. England: Open University Press.

‘Play feeds this inner life… The relationship and connection making the inner outer and the outer inner brings understanding of self, in relation to others and the universe of nature and the peopled world. Unity is fundamental to grasping the essence of Froebelian play.’

Bruce, T., 2021. Friedrich Froebel A Critical Introduction to Key Themes and Debates Bloomsbury: London. Page 63.


When working with the children to gather their opinions it was evident that one emerging factor that prevented some children from going outside was the variable weather that we get ultimately leads to the necessity of wearing wellies and waterproofs in our garden due to muddy state the garden gets in. As one child said “I only go outside when I don’t need to put my waterproofs on”. When asking the children what they would like outside a common answer was that they would like sand in their space. Following the children’s interest and responding to their voices we changed the look of our outdoor space by adding a wooden house which the children put their own stamp on by decorating and often ask to take books into and blankets. We got some planters made and a local business man came into the nursery with a trailer full of soil so the children helped move the soil into the planters as another common theme the children wanted was somewhere to plant and dig. We are now currently doing lots of planting in the garden as the children shared that they would like “poppies”, “tatties”, “and real plants in case we get a real donkey to go in the garden too.” Responding to the children’s comments that they wanted sand we positioned several tyres around the area we are developing and put some sand in the tyres.

When collating the questionnaires that I gave the staff most members like the children found that the weather can be a barrier for the children to access outdoor play because of the state that garden becomes. The responses I received from the staff questionnaires also highlighted how important it was to the staff that children get a considerable amount of time to be outdoors to explore nature and the outdoor world that surrounds them to build on their knowledge of learning with nature and help with the children’s physical development. As (Tovey:2007) highlights the world outdoors gives the children the opportunity to be curious and explore further than the limitations of the inside environment. A change we made to our practice was ensuring that our outdoor area was opened straight after check in until mid-morning, we noticed with this change that more children chose to go outdoors and became much ore engrossed in their play when the outside environment was also set up responding to the children’s interests.

Tovey, H. (2007) Playing Outdoors. Spaces and Places, Risk and Challenge. London: Open University Press


In conclusion, this project has been very informative in bringing positive changes to our setting for the benefits of both the children and our staff. Through gathering the children’s voices and watching how they use the environment we are creating areas in our garden that are purposeful to the children and enhancing their learning.

We are still continuing to add to our outdoor environment and the children have really embraced this project. I have received an offer from parents within my focus group to come and help with the garden.

I feel through this project there is an opening to deepen the staff within our settings understanding on how crucial outdoor play is for children.

Research implications

When embarking on a research project the main aim is to establish a topic that the team
would like to learn more about to provide high quality experiences and opportunities for the
children who attend the setting (MacNaughton & Hughes,2009).The implication on the team
and the setting is to gain knowledge to enhance an area taking into consideration the findings
to create a space that is rich in learning opportunities. Increased knowledge within the project
following our research, in turn gains confidence in the team to explore an area they perhaps
did not feel they had a deep understanding for (Holmes,2014).
Recently the setting refreshed the vision, values, and aims taking a collaborative approach
involving staff, children, parents, and partnership agencies. During this time, we explored
our play pedagogy and how we implement this into practice. The Froebelian principles very
much under pin our practice where children learn through play which is child initiated with
children’s rights at the forefront (Bruce, 2021). It is important for practitioners to take children
outdoors to engage in nature taking on responsibility to care for their natural environment to
be “stewardship of the planet and community” (Bruce, 2021:45)
During the project, the children’s views, opinions, and ideas were incorporated, as stated in
article 12 of united nations or the right of the child, children must be included and listened to
in matters that are important to them (Unicef, n/d). Involving parents within the project, was
beneficial as when the soil and sand arrived, the children alongside parents transported it
into the planters, which were made by another parent. It is important to involve parents as
everyone feels a sense of pride and ownership of the space. In addition, involving
partnership agencies the Forest school trainer came to view the space giving the team
advice on what would be best to plant in the area and willow trees were donated.
The Scottish Government (2013), set out a play strategy for Scotland with a vision for
children to become more active through play, especially outdoors as this sets the
foundations for a healthier lifestyle. Practitioners play a vital role in providing rich
experiences outdoors for children to have access to.
It is very important for our sector to engage in the outdoors and for children to feel connected
to nature, experiencing from the ground to the plate provides so much learning opportunities
and children make these important connections. As stated in the Scottish Governments
blueprint for 2020, early childhood settings must strive to provide children with access to
suitable outdoor spaces. (Scottish Government, 2017)

Practitioner enquiry

Within the setting, there is a culture of reflecting practice and lifelong learning to ensure the
current needs of children and families are met. Practitioner research is extremely valuable
as it takes practitioners out of their comfort zone to explore an area of interest to provide a
deeper knowledge and understanding. When knowledge is increased so is confidence,
allowing practitioners to reflect on current practice exploring the settings pedagogy
approaches to ensure high quality play experiences both indoors and outdoors are
available (Lindon, 2012).
Self-evaluation is important during this process, using the challenge questions set out in
How Good is Our Early Learning and Childcare document to reflect on current practice
(Education Scotland) 2016. To ensure quality provision is being provided, the team meet
monthly to discuss areas for improvement which are included on the annual improvement

Leadership learning

As a leader and having carried our research projects this was a valuable learning curve.
Throughout the process it was important as a leader to keep a reflective journal to
document all thoughts, ideas, and findings which were discussed as this provides an
account of continual learning (Mac Naughton & Hughes, 2009). Enabling the leader to be
able to look back on and reflect for continual improvement.
Effective communication is key as this motivates the practitioner enabling them to achieve
and subsequently a more confident, capable, and competent individual, willing to
participate and contribute to reach a shared goal with mutual respect will evolve (Rodd,
2013). In addition, to take on a supportive role rather than take over was a challenge to
the leader, however, with open communication this was achieved.

Author and role

Caroline J Easton, Nursery Manager

Comments from other network members

What did you appreciate about this research? What forward-looking questions did it raise for you?

  1. Emma Meikle
    Emma Meikle
    01 Jun 2022 at 10:19 am

    Suzanne, Your project sounds really interesting and I love that you have really focused on the child’s voice listening to their opinions and ideas about what they want their garden to look like and also have in it. I’m sure this will continue to have positive impact on both children and staff and they can have lots of fun and learning outdoors.

    Report comment

Add a comment