How is mark-making encouraged in our outdoor environment?

Project author:

Project summary:

An observational study of children (aged 3-5)’s access to resources that support mark-making, while playing and learning in one outdoor setting which follows the principles of Friedrich Froebel.

Child painting on cardboard


Observations, and subsequent self-evaluation, had identified a decrease in children’s involvement in mark-making. The setting considers mark-making a fundamental part of literacy and wished to reverse the trend.

The research therefore looked to find out how children encounter and develop mark-making experiences while living and playing, mostly outdoors, with a particular focus on how mark-making skills could be encouraged, supported, and resourced in the natural environment – in keeping with our Froebelian principles.





Historically, in this Early Years setting, children free flowed, spending much time outdoors, leading their own play, making their own choices, and solving their own problems. Friedrich Froebel firmly believed in a child centred philosophy, and a holistic, all-encompassing approach to learning, and these principles underpin the setting’s practice.

With the onset of COVID-19 restrictions, and changes in operating regulations for Early Years, the setting made the decision to move the free flow practice almost entirely outdoors. As the day-to-day outdoor practice evolved it became apparent that it was not necessary to replicate in full everything that had been on offer indoors.

“The world of nature is not a ‘scene’ or even a landscape. Nature for the child is sheer sensory experience.” (Cobb 1977:28)

However, through observation and professional dialogue, practitioners questioned whether children were developing mark-making skills in their outdoor play. Believing that mark-making is an essential component of language and literacy further debate queried why mark-making was not so evident. This led to exploring what could be done to encourage and resource this area of learning (Education Scotland, 2020).



This research was an observational study, looking at mark-making in the outdoors. The study was conducted with all stakeholders in the setting. Following initial planning with staff members, where methodology was explored, and permissions gained for involvement in the research, discussion ensued around how and when observations would be taken (Bruce, Louis, and McCall, 2015).

Focus was placed on the observations of children’s choices in mark-making and the resources used to achieve this.

Ethical consideration was given to the ongoing consent required by service users to participate. It has been shown that children can be meaningfully engaged in each stage of a research project (MacNaughton and Hughes, 2009).

Respecting children are competent social actors who are knowledgeable about their own social worlds, regular and Informal conversations were held in general day to day practice (McNair, 2021).

“The marks children make... are the beginnings of the essentials they need to write.”

Bruce, T and Spratt, J (2011:82) Essentials of Literacy from 0 – 7, A Whole Child Approach to Communication, Language and Literacy. London: Sage.


From the research undertaken – observations, children’s comments, and photographic evidence – it appeared that mark-making was not a first choice for many children when outdoors.

Further analysis, however, suggested that the initial findings were perhaps only true when interpretating mark-making as an ‘activity’ carried out with paper and pencil, paper and paint or chalks and a chalkboard. The relationships between (for example) drawings or signs made with sticks in sand and mud, in symbolic representation of thoughts and ideas through clay or playdough, to mark-making became more apparent. (Bruce,2021)  This understanding led to practitioners ensuring more open-ended resources were available for children to use. (Education Scotland, 2019)

Time was allocated for staff members to read more widely and discuss their new knowledge.

“Sustained focus” according to Froebel “is the most important feature of a good leader.” (Bruce, 2021)

As this professional growth evolved, a greater understanding developed as to both the importance of mark-making and its connection to emergent writing, and how mark-making could (and should) be interpreted in a broader sense.

In addition to recognising the importance of play, and how children used mark-making in their play, it was acknowledged that provocations provided to stimulate interest in writing within role play were effective. Writing for a purpose (shopping lists, letters to friends, notes taken by police, hairdressers, pilots etc) enhanced children’s understanding of this mode of communication.

As we became more aware of the wider concept of mark making as part of literacy, the contrast was acknowledged of the difference between the print-rich inside environment of our past practice and the apparent lack of print outdoors. An audit was conducted, and findings debated. On reflection it became clear that there was more exposure to print outside than we first thought eg signage to identify areas around the environment, wooden picture and name labels on children’s pegs. More importantly we evidenced the wealth of signage within the locality eg street names, billboards, shop fronts, information on vehicles and meaningful signposts such as ‘to the park’.


The research brought about the understanding that carefully thought-out provocations and responsive planning can certainly advance the development of mark making; however, the natural environment on its own can support emergent writing. (Kathryn Solly, 2015)

The expanse of the outdoors allows the opportunity for children to move more, encouraging the development of both gross and fine motor skills necessary for handwriting.

Moving forward, in discussion with the children, it was decided an area of the garden would be identified as a place for them to display their creations should they wish – similarly, to children adding their home-made books to the Book Nook area

This research has ignited interest within the staff body, and we intend looking further at what constitutes ‘emergent writing’.

Research implications

Although this research was primarily looking at how mark-marking exists in the outdoor areas of one inner city kindergarten, its value went far beyond the findings, and beyond how those findings impact positively on children. Some practitioners are still in the early stages of their personal Froebelian journeys, and most have never before been involved in research. The research proved to be invaluable in facilitating questioning, discourse and professional dialogue, leading to subsequent shifts in practice and overall a greater understanding of Froebelian practice.


An over-riding benefit was the opportunity for myself and the lead practitioner to work closely together. The training, reading and debates served to confirm a unity of thought and purpose, and coupled with the involvement of the staff team, magnified the already present collegiate work.


As staff focused on observing how mark-making was provided, and used, outdoors, so their knowledge and understanding of Froebelian principles increased. ‘Freedom with Guidance’ was frequently debated, and confidence in allowing children to follow their unique creative interests unhindered and unhurried, rose. In keeping with our philosophy, ‘resources’ are provided throughout the environment and children free-flow, engaging in solitary or group play. Their learning is holistic, and we hope unrestricted by time or practice constraints.

We noticed certain children – who regularly choose traditional mark-making tools (paper, crayons, paint…), and like to model-make, design, and draw/paint – became frustrated as the elements worked against them. We made certain sheltered areas were provided.

However, through considered modelling by staff, children adapted their practice and would create using natural materials, placing them in large frames made from sticks which had been coppiced (with permission!) from a local woodland area. These creations often accompanied children’s stories linking therefore, their inner thoughts, or feelings, and expressing them in a symbolic manner.

Role play, sand play and mixing mud appeared to be the manner in which children less likely to use paper and pencil made their marks. A benefit of vertical grouping became apparent in that the influence of children who possess ‘better developed’ writing skills, was obvious. If B, aged four, with charcoal from the campfire, made a detailed map it was likely C aged 3 would cop y. Likewise block or cardboard structures were often covered in chalk marks or labels added to by children of all ages.


From this staff recognised the wider interpretations of mark-making.


Overall, the research project was successful in its aim to determine how mark-making is encouraged in our outdoor areas, but probably had its greatest impact in the increase in staff knowledge, and subsequent practice. Such has been the interest ignited that we now intend to look more closely at ‘why mark-making is important’ and ‘how does it relate to emergent writing?’.


We intend to share our research findings with the parent body, with our local Froebelian network, and (if asked) with the Local authority with whom we are in partnership.


Interesting observations of the team and building these kinds of relationships. [AL1]


So important recognising that very often learning is a social experience. [AL2]

Practitioner enquiry

The setting is relatively inexperienced in carrying out practitioner-research. The project helped us focus on an area of practice which had been causing concern, but the overwhelming positive came from the increased collaboration, and subsequent extension of knowledge of staff members.

We have already planned to carry the research forward, and examine the purpose of mark-making, while observing how the children in our setting develop ‘writing’.


“The appreciation young children feel for the rest of their lives towards those adults who have contributed in a major way to how they feel about themselves as learners is rarely spoken. It is an abstract, intuitive thing which they take with them through their lives. And yet, it anchors them forever…[G]ood teachers help you to learn the things you find hardest in ways which are right for you. (Bruce, 2020:24 and 26).


Bruce’s quote summed up for us the significance of quality interaction amongst staff and children, and reminded us that Continuing Professional Development/Research is important

as a way of ensuring children experience the best practice possible. Moving forward we need accept that time and costs are a negative.


Fantastic! [AL1]

Leadership learning

-that staff know more than they sometimes think they do, which raises their confidence ie in part leadership follows they same journey as supporting children: start where the learner is, and scaffold from there

– that working co-operatively and sharing ideas enhances the learning of all.


That Froebel’s principles permeate all that we ‘do’ in our setting – and that I can provide the materials/books to enable staff to discover the relevance of his principles in the 21st C — and associate them to practice.


“Once everyone understands their value, we stop hustling for worthiness and lean in to our gifts” (Brown, B. 2018:98)


This is great obvservation and a really interesting point – giving staff the tools and vocabulary to recognise their own knowledge, ideas and contributions helps them to know their value and boosts their confidence.  [AL1]

Author and role

Alison J Hawkins, Lead

Comments from other network members

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

  1. Michaela McCune
    Michaela McCune
    25 May 2022 at 1:50 pm

    This is a very thought-provoking piece of research. Frobel’s notion of sustained focus is something I would like to research. Mark making outdoors is something I am keep to develop and reading you research has made me take a step back and consider the ways in which mark making is promoted outdoors.

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  2. Rebecca Innes
    Rebecca Innes
    25 May 2022 at 5:24 pm

    Wow! What a fantastic piece of research. I am very interested by your findings and analysis of the interpretation of ‘mark-making’ as more than just traditional pencil and paper activities. I love the idea of nature supporting emergent writing too.

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  3. Julie Forrest
    Julie Forrest
    25 May 2022 at 5:27 pm

    Thank you Moria for this piece of research. Having an interest in developing the outdoor area (which seems never-ending!) and developing mark-making opportunities is something that I and my setting have struggled with. I enjoyed reading about you journey and your future development. This has inspired me to go back tomorrow and look at the outdoor setting again. Thank you.

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  4. Jacqueline Stewart
    Jacqueline Stewart
    30 May 2022 at 12:01 pm

    What a thought provoking project, we are a new build and in the development stages of our outdoors, your project has made me think of things that I may not have and how we can create an environment that supports mark making.

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  5. Jacqueline Stewart
    Jacqueline Stewart
    30 May 2022 at 12:01 pm

    What a thought provoking project, we are a new build and in the development stages of our outdoors, your project has made me think of things that I may not have and how we can create an environment that supports mark making.

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  6. katie smith
    katie smith
    29 Aug 2022 at 8:41 pm

    What a brilliant project. It really makes you think about mark-making in a different light rather than pen to paper! A supporting read to help anyone wanting to develop their outdoor space. Thankyou

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