Sue Cowley: 10 Outdoor Play Ideas
for Open Air Learning

Get outside and play in the great outdoors

Whatever happened to outdoor play?

By most metrics, children are spending less time outdoors. In 2018, the National Trust found that children in the UK spend just four hours playing outside, in comparison to an 8.2 hour weekly average among their parents’ generation. In another poll, the National Trust found that just one in three British children could not identify a magpie.

Now, we certainly don’t think there’s any great evil in playing outdoors. But when the sun’s shining, it never hurts to get out for some fresh air. After all, outdoor play is good for you: It helps children connect with the natural world, it gets children moving and removes stress, and allows them to explore and build confidence.

In light of the coronavirus, it’s especially important for us to find ways to get some fresh air and fun outside.

We talked to expert Sue Cowley to put together this list of 10 ideas for outdoor play. You might have to introduce your own social distancing rules into a few of these, but we hope this is a good starting point.

Interested in more? Sue Cowley contributed these activities as part of our NMT award-nominated Activity Library, a resource that you can access for free as part of Famly Free – a light version of our software which gives you access to observations, learning journals, and parent communication at no cost. So why not sign up today? Head in to see 20 more free activities from Sue, as well as more than 50 other free activities.

Now, here are 10 great ideas for outdoor play with your setting.

1. Building a Bug Hotel

The outdoor play idea: Children work together to gather materials to build a bug habitat to house insects over the winter.

What you need: 

  • Outdoor nature area
  • Recycled building materials
  • Craft supplies like glue, tape and string

How you do it:

  • Talk with the children about where insects go over the winter.
  • Go on a minibeast hunt to find small insects, such as woodlice, snails and slugs.
  • Explain to the children that you are going to build a ‘hotel’ for these minibeasts to stay in when it gets cold.
  • You might introduce the term ‘hibernation’ and see if the children know what it means.

2. Planting Bulbs

The outdoor play idea: The children plant and label spring bulbs, observing them as they grow and flower.

What you need:

  • Plant pots
  • Compost
  • Trowels
  • Labels
  • Pens
  • Spring bulbs (Daffodils and crocuses are effective and inexpensive)
  • Outdoor space

How you do it:

  • Talk with the children about how bulbs grow.
  • Show them how to plant the bulbs – use the trowel to put some compost into the bottom of a pot, put in the bulb, cover with more compost.
  • Label the pots together, letting the children make marks on the plant labels. Add their names if you wish.
  • Water the planted bulbs well and put in a sheltered part of your outdoor area. Keep an eye on them over the winter, making sure that they don’t dry out.
  • Watch as the plants appear over time, and when they flower you might spot an early bee coming to visit them.

3. A Listening Walk

The outdoor play idea: Go on a walk around your neighbourhood and collect ambient sounds.

What you need:

  • A suitable walk for your children (e.g. to a local park)
  • Adults to chaperone
  • High-visibility vests for your children
  • Recording device
  • Notebook
  • Pen

How you do it:

  • Take the children on walk in your local area.
  • Explain that during your walk you are going to listen out for sounds and collect them.
  • You could either make a note of the sounds you hear, or take a recording.
  • Encourage the children to listen carefully and pick up on background sounds.
  • Talk about the sounds you hear – which of them are from nature and which are man-made? This is a useful activity for developing phonological awareness.

4. Shape Hunt

The outdoor play idea: Children and practitioners go on a hunt for shapes in their local environment.

What you need:

  • Safe walking route or outdoor area

How you do it:

  • Explain to the children that you are going to act as detectives, and you will work together to hunt down as many shapes as you can.
  • These could be shapes seen on a walk (e.g. road signs and markings, shapes in nature, shapes in buildings) or shapes seen around your setting.
  • Work as a team to try and find examples of all the different kinds of shapes. You might take photographs of these to refer to later on.
  • With older children, use mathematical language to talk about the properties of the different shapes you find.

5. On the Road

The outdoor play idea: Children and practitioners create a road network to explore with ride-on toys.

What you need:

  • Outdoor area
  • Various ride-on toys/li>
  • Materials for making road signs (e.g. broom handles, cardboard and paint)

How you do it:

  • Using outdoor chalks, get the children to design a road system to drive around on in their ride on toys.
  • Talk together about how you should design the roads and what you need to take into account for driver and pedestrian safety.
  • Create signs for your road system, for instance ‘STOP’ and ‘Roundabout’.
  • Make sure you include a zebra crossing so pedestrians can cross.

6. Balloon Keepy-Uppy

The outdoor play idea: A fun balloon activity helps children improve their focus and develop their coordination.

What you’ll need:

  • Balloons (one per child)
  • Open space

How you do it:

  • You can do this activity in an open outdoor space, but if the wind is too strong, you may have to move indoors.
  • Give each child a balloon.
  • Challenge them to keep it up in the air for as long as possible by hitting it upwards and not letting it touch the ground.
  • This requires focus to catch it before it hits the ground. It also requires coordination, to ensure that they don’t hit the balloon too hard.
  • The children could write their ‘best score’ on their balloon.
  • They could also work in pairs to do this.

7. Sorting Ourselves

The outdoor play idea: The children work together to sort themselves into groups using different criteria.

What you need:

  • Open outdoor space
  • Hula hoops (or another way of marking different spaces)

How you do it:

  • Talk about the words ‘sort’, ‘similarities’ and ‘differences’ and what they mean.
  • Explain to the children that they are going to group themselves according to different criteria.
  • Try some simple sorting criteria, for instance eye or hair colour.
  • You could also sort into categories such as ‘favourite’ (food, season, etc.).
  • Then try some trickier ones that require a lot more cooperation as a group, for instance sorting themselves into a line by month of birth.

8. We All Freeze!

The outdoor play idea: Children learn how to respond quickly to instructions.

What you need:

  • An open outdoor space (can be moved inside in case of inclement weather)
  • A drum or other percussive instrument

How you do it:

  • Get the children to stand in a space in an open area – this might be outside or in a hall if you have access to one.
  • Explain to the children that you are going to play a game of ‘freeze’.
  • They should walk around the space, making sure they do not bump into anyone.
  • When they hear you bang the drum, they should freeze like a statue. When you bang the drum another time, they should start walking again.
  • Repeat several times, challenging the children to ‘freeze’ as quickly as they can.
  • Give the children the chance to bang the drum and control the freeze as well.

9. Escape from the Ice

The outdoor play idea: The children explore natural materials frozen in a block of ice.

What you need:

  • Outdoor area
  • Natural materials (e.g leaves, pine cones, shells and flowers)
  • Plastic tray
  • Water
  • Large Freezer
  • Tuff Tray

How you do it:

  • Fill the plastic tray with water and then add the natural materials.
  • Place in the freezer overnight, until the materials are frozen inside a block of ice.
  • Put a Tuff Tray in your outdoor area, and turn out the block of ice into it.
  • Explore with the children as it melts over the course of the day.
  • Talk about the changes that occur, and about how water feels and behaves in different states.

10. Autumnal Transient Art

The outdoor play idea: The children make art using natural materials.

What you need:

  • Outdoor area
  • Autumn leaves
  • Twigs
  • Pebbles
  • Flower petals
  • Andy Goldsworthy artwork images

How you do it:

  • Show the children some pictures of Andy Goldsworthy’s work – Goldsworthy is an artist who works outdoors, creating art using natural materials.
  • Discuss the patterns that you can see in his work – you might use words such as spiral, circle, and star.
  • Go outdoors to create some art of your own using natural materials.
  • Talk with the children about the patterns they have created.

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