Outdoor and free-flow play at non-formal educational settings

Project author:

Project summary:

An action research study of how we could deliver small workshops for children 4-6 years old with no detailed planning, only by preparing the environment where they will take place.


This project stemmed from the contradiction between my belief that learning should always be child-led and my tendency to lean heavily on my planning while delivering small workshops for groups of children in an NGO setting. Based on the Froebelian principles, I wanted to explore whether I could deliver workshops that would be interesting and meaningful to the children only by preparing the space where the workshop would take place and the materials with which the children would interact. This inquiry matters because it could broaden our understanding of how learning takes place in a non-formal educational setting.


My inquiry took place in a NGO setting. More specifically, this organisation is located in the centre of Athens and it offers homework support and various workshops for children age 4 to 12 years old. The children who participate in these workshops usually come from unprivileged socioeconomic backgrounds and/or from immigrant or refugee families. A significant percentage of the children do not yet speak the Greek language. Consequently, as a Greek middle class woman, it is important for me to be aware of any biases I might have towards these children. During my everyday practice and during this specific project I try not to prejudge what they are capable of, what is of interest to them and what challenges the language barrier might impose. In addition to that, it is necessary for me to take into account that I have been raised in a society where ageist behaviours and beliefs were not considered problematic. During my practice I, therefore, have to be aware of my tendency to control the learning process and to exert power over children’s behaviours and experiences.

This research is based on the methodological tool of action research. More specifically, I planned to deliver a small workshop in an outdoor space. My goal was to provide natural and open-ended materials (clay, wooden blocks, sticks, stones, leaves, mud, dirt, pinecones, etc.) and allow children to freely explore the environment and interact with the materials. The participants would be a group of children (ages 4-6), probably a school class.

While planning this research project, I was working at a different setting, in which I was delivering small workshops in an outdoor space for different school classes. Because of this change in circumstances I had to reconsider the methodology of my inquiry. I chose not to conduct my research at the NGO’s facilities but at a small city garden nearby. This choice was made because learning through nature, in an outdoor environment was essential for this project. Moreover, the children who participated at the project were not a school class but thirteen children (ages 4-6) who participate regularly at our workshops. These children were not familiar with me as a practitioner because I had only recently started working at this setting. Most of them could not speak Greek, or could only use a few words.


The main ethical issue I had to consider for this project was how to ensure that every child and/or parent was informed adequately before deciding if they wanted to participate or give their consent for their child’s participation. Most children and parents could not speak and read Greek. Therefore, I asked the NGO’s interpreters to help me explain to the children what this project is about and what their participation would mean. They also translated the parental consent form into Arabic and Farsi. A number of parents had concerns, but they were not able to communicate them directly to me. Once again, the interpreters helped us to clarify any doubts. In some cases, parents who were fluent in Greek acted as “cultural mediators” between other parents and me.


The first thing that should be mentioned is the joy that the children seemed to experience while exploring the garden and discovering the materials that were hidden in its different corners. Also, they were not exactly sure how to classify these materials. For example, a child could be heard exclaiming: 

“Look! There are toys here! (pause) Are these toys?”

In some cases, the way they interacted with the materials was not the one I would have expected. For example, some children wanted to throw wooden blocks in the air and one child only wanted to play with a wooden sphere. Children also wanted to combine different materials (e.g. clay with sticks and leaves). Water was also of great importance to their play, which was something that I was not expecting. Their interaction with their environment was also very interesting. The garden had different levels and the children enjoyed jumping up and down from them. Some children were watching insects and some decided to water the plants. 

But, even though they were eager to explore, they assumed that I would decide the way and the time during which they could explore the different materials and areas of the garden, and they asked for permission whenever they wanted to use something new. This is not surprising, as they are not used to free flow play. This is also evident by the fact that, when they first entered the garden, they all sat around a small table and waited for instructions. The children were also very concerned about getting dirty. They wanted to wash their hands again and again and they didn’t want to play with natural clay which they considered to be “just dirt”. It was only when we told them that clay is like “plasticine” that they started to play with it. In addition, some children were saying that they didn’t know how to play with clay and they wanted me to model their piece of clay for them.

After the first 20 minutes, most of the children were playing freely, without asking for permission. As a team they could self-organise their play and their activities so as not to interrupt or annoy one another. A group of children was using different materials (water, clay, wooden blocks and stones) as part of their symbolic play. Other children engaged in parallel play or were playing in pairs, using either wooden blocks or natural materials. They were, also, encouraging one another to explore new materials and to participate in their play. In some cases, children worked together in order to solve a problem (e.g. cut a big piece of clay into smaller pieces).

Lastly, we should mention the case of a child who did not seem to feel comfortable in this space, did not want to play in the garden and preferred to draw, using paper and pencil that she brought with her. After seeing this, some other children also wanted to draw and decided, at my suggestion, to draw shapes in their piece of clay, using a twig as a pencil. This child felt more comfortable after a little while. She started talking with another child in their mother tongue and they started playing together with clay. 


This project reinforced my belief that playing in nature as well as the use of open-ended materials allows the practitioner to take a step back and let the children explore, play and learn with freedom and autonomy. This project indicates that even children who are not familiar with free flow play can self-organise their play. This seems to be true not only for a school setting but also for non-formal educational settings such as an NGO. In the future, I would like to incorporate this knowledge into my everyday practice and move away from workshops that require detailed planning. In addition to that, I believe that it is necessary to explore the possibilities of free-flow and autonomous play for older children.  

Research implications

To be completed

Practitioner enquiry

To be completed

Leadership learning

To be completed

Author and role

To be completed

Comments from other network members

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

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