Two hours outdoors, two hours indoors free play.

Project author:

Project summary:

An observation study of how a three-year-old child uses open-ended materials while playing outdoors in comparison to indoors, as well as the place where she stays longer. Finally, an interview with her shows us what makes her happy during her free play.


This project is an observation of how a child explores and learns by herself during play with open-ended materials that will be chosen by her.

The findings will be beneficial for me and maybe other educators to be aware and improve our practice to make children happier and give them the opportunity to explore their interests in their own way. Interest is a powerful motivational process that energizes learning. Children learn more effectively when adults engage them in everyday activities that are based on their interests.

This project was conducted in order to compare the free play of a three-year-old child outdoors and indoors with the same open-ended materials collected by the child herself. The comparison is made mainly in the way in which the child uses these materials in her free play, in the duration she deals with them, but also in what makes the child happy, all of which are based on the place. Finally, the child’s opinion about what she liked most is cited.


This project was implemented outdoors—in the neighborhood forest-park—for two hours and indoors—at the child’s house—for two hours. I have chosen these two places because Maya (not her real name) is familiar with them and this could be an advantage since she would not have to “explore” new places compared to her familiar home. Nothing had to be changed in either place since my purpose was to observe the child’s play in a familiar environment.

Not having a class this period, I decided to work with a child that I know.

During two different meetings with the three-year-old girl, she was observed indoors and outdoors playing with open-ended materials in order to examine how she uses them in her free play. Another method of data collection was the interview conducted after our two meetings in order to get her view on what she liked more and why.



What had to be taken into account during the research was that the places had to be familiar to her so that the comparison could be valid. Another thing was the parents’ consent, which was signed by her mother—as well, I asked them to be just the two of us at home so as not to misinterpret due to external factors. Finally, I decided to do the meetings on two different days because four hours on the same day might be too tiring for a three-year-old child.

“Children learn as they play. Most importantly, in play, children learn how to learn.”

O.F. Donaldson


The questions of the project were how a three-year-old child uses natural open-ended materials, where she plays more—outdoors or indoors—and what makes her happier.

Usage of open-ended materials:

It was observed that Maya developed a very strong sense of curiosity; learning through exploration was evident at all points as she experimented at all stages with all available materials during outdoor and indoor play. She seemed to be satisfied with the choices she made and looked very happy in nature. It seemed that she found ways to use natural materials even indoors. However, she was happier outdoors than indoors, and she played longer while we were outside.

Open-ended materials were mainly used for symbolic play, both outdoors and indoors. The difference between those places is that in nature she had more choices for play. She ran, she cooked, she counted, she built houses, she learned how someone makes mud when she accidentally pours water on the ground, she climbed, she ate, she experimented, she had to solve problems to play the way she wanted, she played hide and seek and did not hesitate to get dirty and to engage in risky play.

On the other hand, in the house, she had only the materials that she had chosen in our first meeting, and that limited her indoor play quite a bit. Still, she cooked, built a house, and experimented with the proportions needed to make mud.

About the duration of play:

Regarding the duration of play, it seems that there is a significant difference between outdoors and indoors. At the park-forest, Maya was playing for two whole hours, and when it was time to leave, she insisted on staying longer. It was the time that her mother came to pick her up, so we continued to play all together.

On the other hand, at home, she seemed to be very happy that we were playing again, but she soon lost her interest. After an hour, she started to ask for other things to do, such as playing on her tablet, drawing, and other toys of her own.

About happiness:

Finally, according to the interview at the end of the project, Maya said, “I liked it more when we played outdoors. I ran there and there were a lot of things to do there. We made mud and climbed trees.”


Through observation, I came to the fact that some children in nature have more opportunities for learning, experimentation, creativity, and exploration than indoors with directed materials. I learned that children work better when they have more opportunities for independence and support from adults. Also, open-ended materials work in the same way indoors but not for the same length of time as outdoors. Finally, children simply need to play freely to be happy!

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?

  1. Editor
    Site Editor
    29 Nov 2022 at 12:35 pm

    Vasiliki, thanks for sharing this project! It is a close observation of a child’s sense of creative “affordance” in two very different environments. You took care to make sure the child felt safe and had ownership of her environment. You include her voice – both non-verbally in observing her play, and verbally. Your research feels like an important step towards making the argument to others from your own personal experience about how much deeper and more self-sustaining children’s play can be in the outdoors, even with the same materials. A small reflection: you draw conclusions about what your research says about children in general from your study, but I don’t think your sample size really enables you to do this. Froebel also drew conclusions from his studies of individual children – but we are perhaps more aware today that no two children have the same cultural starting point. Some children may feel very uncomfortable in the natural environment for different reasons, and their stories and process around becoming comfortable to learn in nature would be different. I wonder, then, if you might have the opportunity to bring this learning into your professional work, and enlarge your sample. Well done on taking this important first step.

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