Breaking down barriers to outdoor play

Research practitioner:

Senior practitioner:

Project summary:

An observation of children aged between 2 and 5 and how they use the garden area in the nursery – as well as how the adults working in the nursery offer experiences outdoors.



This project looks at the children in the nursery and how the adults support them confidently to learn from the outdoors. It takes into account how they use the garden and what support they have from the adults to take forward the play they are interested in. The purpose was to learn what the children enjoyed doing while outdoors and if the staff support this and expand on the children’s interests and understand the benefits of the children spending time outdoors. The other focus is to make sure the staff have the correct training and feel supported to then help the children as they play and learn outdoors.


At the start of this project Millburn ELC was still working in a pod setting due to COVID restrictions. The nursery was in a fortunate position – due to the space we had available we had the 3-5 room split into two separate playrooms each able to hold 60 children with adjoining garden areas and having a playroom and garden area for the 2-3 year old children able to hold 20 children. It was observed that staff where really lacking in confidence when it came to exploring the outdoor area. The staff spent some time outdoors but there was little engagement with the children and the area didn’t have anything to spark the children’s curiosity. During the course of the project staff were encouraged to give the children access to the garden for as long as possible although it became clear that the weather was a contributing factor to adults and children spending time outdoors. Towards the end of the project and with restrictions easing we moved back into free flow outdoor play with the doors to be open all day with the children being able to move in and outdoors as they pleased.


I had to carefully consider how I approached the staff to discuss first and foremost how they felt about being outdoors in the garden and how they felt about certain areas of play that are most suited outdoors, for example, risky play. I compiled questionnaires which the staff completed about the outdoors which gave them the opportunity to air any concerns they had and if they knew of the benefits to children spending time outdoors. I also worked alongside the children in each playroom to observe them as they explored the garden areas and held a child consultation with children who wanted to take part to hear their views on the garden and outdoor play. This was in line with the UNCRC Article 13 where the children have the right to be heard express themselves freely.


“All weather play is the best form of play” - a stand out quote from a member of staff in the setting during a discussion about children exploring the garden areas.


First-hand I observed the staff with less confidence and sought to have conversations with them. I also observed how much the children enjoy spending time outdoors and the positive impact this can have on their behaviour and the overall atmosphere in the playrooms. I gathered this data through observations taken over different periods of the day and from discussions with the adults working directly with the children in the playroom.  I also observed that the children benefited greatly from being given the independence to come and go from indoors to outdoors as they please. Having resources on hand to support them in their learning was of great benefit, particularly in the 3-5 room. The children in the 2-3 room explored the outdoor area more freely when the weather was warm and dry as It became clear they preferred being able to come and go without the rigmarole of getting dressed into their puddle suits and welly boots, although they do still go outdoors when it is wet and rainy, it is much more exciting for them to wander in and out with less adult interference. Staff spoke about how they would like to have some training and this opportunity came in the form of the most recent South Lanarkshire council run outdoor training which we where able to put 3 staff forward for with myself and Marie also being able to participate in one of the sessions. The outdoor area was made priority as part of the nurseries improvement plan which again gave the staff another opportunity to speak of how they felt about the garden and develop the areas in the garden as they felt would benefit the children. The children were most interested in the large climbing equipment or using the bikes when outdoors. Staff decided from these observations to move the two climbing frames together, having one moved from another area and placed beside the current frame in the 3-5 room, and place planks of wood between them to give the children the opportunity to explore risks as they make their way across. A swing was also added to further their exploration of the frame with other off-cuts of wood near by for the children to add to the frame as they wish to develop their balance and coordination in different ways. They children also spoke of how they would like a car park for their bikes and staff are working alongside them to create this space and make road markings for them to read as they use the bikes on the concrete. The children in the 2-3 room were also very interested in climbing so we re arranged the back of the garden and made space for pallets and outlast blocks which the children move around to create climbing spaces for themselves with adult assistance when they require it. is Scotland’s coalition for outdoor play and learning and speaks of the importance of outdoor play; how Scotland is becoming a pioneer in its research in outdoor play and learning; and how other countries are looking to Scotland as a role model to further benefit themselves and their outlook on outdoor learning.


Overall having taken a closer look into the outdoor areas in Millburn ELC and how children use them I have learned the children work best when given the most opportunities to be as independent as they can be with a confident adult on hand to support them in whatever they want to learn or expand on as they play. I will continue to observe and be a positive role model to the children and the staff as we make the most of our outdoor areas and spend as much time outdoors as we can. This research will impact the setting as staff have a new outlook on the outdoors and have seen how the environment in particular is a great resource to the children as they have seen the benefits this has on them through fresh eyes. Staff now see themselves as a resource and are taking forward their observations and continuing professional discussions to support the children through their learning and exploration of the outdoors.

Research implications

The research that took place for our Frobelian Futures project was beneficial for the team as it was an opportunity to delve deep into what our provision currently offers and what we could potentially offer.  All staff were consulted to find out a base point for our research to see where our staff were on the importance of outdoor play and how it supports the learning and development of the children in our care. By finding out what the teams views were on outdoor play it gave us Food for thought on what training and development needs the team needed as many were saying they didn’t feel as confident on how to support learning in the outdoors as they did in the indoors. We consulted with children and parents and gathered information on what their views on outdoor play were. We used the action research cycle and shared this with all stakeholders to keep them updated with our progress. By taking part in this research, it helped us define our pedagogical approach to outdoor learning that we can share with current staff team, parents and most importantly the children and those who join us in the future.

From our consultations, it was evident that we needed to resource a variety of items ranging from physical goods such as additional warm wet weather clothing for both staff and children to literature/training to support the staff’s development.

Our parent’s committee met with us and we were able to share our vision for outdoor learning and they agreed to support us by fundraising for outdoor clothing first of all and now are supporting us create a sensory garden and our very own growing area for both plants and vegetables to allow us share Froebel’s vision that children would become gardeners, but also grow as human beings in the protected space created for them within the garden where they can explore,  discover and engage with nature.

This research project allowed us reflection on our current policy for outdoor learning and risky play, and it was evident we needed to update them taking into account of all our finding’s. We shared the policies with staff, parents and children and received much positive responses especially for risky play from the parents.

On the whole we believe the project has went very well and although we are still developing our provision as we are a new establishment with many newly qualified staff we can already see the impact the project has made as staff are reporting they feel more confident in the outdoors, developing areas and the children have benefitted from many wonderful experiences. The parents comment regularly on the learning journals that it is wonderful to see their children take part in a wide range of outdoor experiences.

We have had visitors from other establishments to see our outdoor space as it had been noted by quality and locality officers how well it was developing.

Practitioner enquiry


I have always valued practitioner research but more so now after doing this project as it gave us a starting point on making change. Because we involved all stakeholders and found out their views and experience it allowed us to carefully plan the change and ensure everyone was on board but also to ensure all knew why the change was needed and to give them the support and training/development needs to get everyone in a similar mind-set. As a new establishment with a relatively newly qualified staff I would like to continue with practitioner research on a regular basis to support our improvement plan and overall development of our fantastic establishment.


Leadership learning


I have learned a great deal through supporting this research as sometimes it’s easy to forget that not everyone shares your experience and values. The main thing I learnt as a leader during this project was that I had to find ways to influence people to invest and share in the journey with us, showing passion, to engage and motivate them. As a leader I learnt that it is important that all participants’ views and experience had to be taken into account as it would have been unethical of me to disregard this. It was fascinating to hear everyone’s points of view and to be able to share mine. I learnt that it is important that the leader drive the project to ensure that it is delivered in a timely fashion. I believe we still have some work to do but we have made great strides with achieving our breaking down barriers to outdoor play.


I have learned more of what I already knew that we have a fabulous team here and we all want what is best to support our young people and their families.


I have learned that the practitioner who took the lead in this project is a true Frobelian and went to great lengths to ensure this project was a success.

Author and role

Marie Grierson, Depute Head of Establishment

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