2012, Volume 15, Research Articles

Characteristics of Optimal Outdoor Environments ...

Article Index

nzrece journal


Original Research Paper
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Characteristics of Optimal Early Childhood Centre Outdoor Environments: Spaces and Places in which Children and Adults Want to Be 

By Cheryl Faye Greenfield
Manukau Institute of Technology, NZ

Full reference
Greenfield, C.F. (2012). Characteristics of optimal early childhood centre outdoor environments: Spaces and places in which children and adults want to be. NZ Research in Early Childhood Education Journal, 15, 42-60. Retrieved from http://www.childforum.com/research/2012-nzrece-journal-articles/885-optimal-early-childhood-centre-outdoor-environments.html



The purpose of this project was to investigate what teachers deemed optimal in their provision of an outdoor environment. This research involved 46 teachers from 15 early childhood centres in the North Island of New Zealand. The findings reported in this paper will enable those responsible for outdoor design and provision to better understand the characteristics of optimal early childhood outdoor settings. The study was underpinned by the belief that children have the right to access optimal outdoor early childhood environments (Bilton, 2005; Frost, 2006; Greenfield, 2007a; Rivkin, 2000; Tovey, 2007). Research procedures included a questionnaire and photographs of spaces and places early childhood teachers thought were optimal in their outdoor environments. The teachers’ responses showed substantial agreement on what contributes to an optimal outdoor environment alongside features unique to that centre/community context. Eight key characteristics of optimal outdoor provision emerged from the findings; most salient were “relationships” and “opportunities, two threads which were clearly woven through the characteristics identified. The research further recommended a series of questions which early childhood services could use to self-review their outdoor area and their provisions for outdoor play (Greenfield, 2010).

 Key words: Outdoor environments, pedagogy, self-review, outdoor design


Labelling outdoor environments in early childhood settings as being ‘good’ or ‘bad’; ‘high’ or ‘poor’ quality, has not advanced our understanding of the essential characteristics of an optimal outdoor area within specific early childhood centres. Quality contains notions of excellence and has been subject to much debate in terms of early childhood provision, with many perspectives recognised and articulated (Dahlberg, 1999; Farquhar, 1990; Fleer & Kennedy, 2006). Farquhar (1990) and Rinaldi (2006) argue that it is dangerous to assume that agreement can exist on what a quality early childhood programme looks like, because the concept of quality is multidimensional and dynamic and “its interpretation depends upon the cultural and philosophical context in which the concept is applied” (Farquhar, 1990, p. 22).

‘Optimal’ has connotations of what is most desirable or most favourable, especially within a given context and also fits best within a sociocultural perspective. It is about providing, in this case, an environment that has the most beneficial qualities possible for the children attending the early childhood service. Hence we bring quality into what is optimal by saying that an optimal outdoor environment for infants, toddlers, and young children contains many qualities that foster the holistic development and learning of children as well as building and sustaining relationships. Bullard’s (2010) book Creative Environments for Learning uses the term ‘optimal’ when describing outdoor playgrounds that are functional, safe, and which, also provide increased learning opportunities and improved social interactions.

The New Zealand Education Review Office (ERO) has expressed concerns about the outdoor environment in two thirds of the NZ early childhood centres it sampled (Education Review Office, 2009) and this anxiety must be taken seriously. ERO identified that one of the concerns regarding outdoor provision was the lack of grassed areas, gardens, and natural resources available to children. There is an abundance of literature that argues that poorly designed and maintained environments can be detrimental to children’s development and that there is a need to provide the best outdoor play environments possible for children. This literature argues that play in outdoor settings is very different to play that occurs indoors, and has a unique role in the holistic (intellectual, social, emotional, physical, cultural, and spiritual) development of children (Bilton, 2005; Burdette & Whitaker, 2005; Frost, 2006; Greenman, 2005; Gruenewald, 2003; Herrington, 2005; Savelsbergh, Davids, van der Kamp, & Bennett, 2003; Wardle, 2008).

In order to offer optimal outdoor environments teachers must have a “critical pedagogy of place”, following Gruenewald’s synthesis of developmental and learning theories, ecological (place-based education), and sociocultural (critical pedagogy) theories. Critical pedagogy is needed to challenge the “assumptions, practices and outcomes taken for granted by the dominant culture in conventional education” (Gruenewald, 2003, p. 1) and causes teachers to critically reflect on what is provided for children in the outdoors.

It is now well established that the environment we place children in strongly influences the behaviour and learning that occurs there (Tovey, 2007), and the child’s sense of self (Greenman, 2005). Space is the backdrop to play, supplying the context, content, and meaning (Titman, 1994) loading our bodies with sensory information. Thus the environment is crucial to whatever occurs within it (Greenman, 2005; Rinaldi, 2006). That is why every goal in Te Whāriki: (Ministry of Education, 1996) starts with the words “children experience an environment where . . .”  It is imperative that the early childhood sector has a deeper understanding of how to fulfil the principles, strands, and goals of Te Whāriki (the Māori word for woven mat) which endorse the value and importance of infants, toddlers, and young children being outdoors, engaging with nature and physically active play. Teachers’ values and attitudes towards outdoor play can strongly influence the provision for children’s learning and development and the quality of that provision (Hutt, Tyler, Hutt, & Christopherson, 1989) which is why the teachers’ perspectives were sought in this project.

The research aim was to provide some answers in relation to what outdoor spaces and places in early childhood settings are deemed ‘optimal’. The investigation was framed around this aim and the following three questions.

  1. What examples of optimal early childhood centre outdoor environments can be found in Aotearoa/New Zealand?
  2. What spaces and/or places contribute to optimal outdoor environments in New Zealand early childhood settings? And why?
  3. Are there certain characteristics or commonalities of optimal provision evident across the settings represented in written responses and photographs submitted by the participating teachers?


Research Procedures

After receiving ethical approval for the project from the Manukau Institute of Technology Research and Ethics Committee (E09/SS/12), invitations to participate were sent out for New Zealand early childhood associations to share with members. The information letter explained that the purpose of the research project was to investigate examples of excellence and innovation in optimal outdoor environment provision through photography and a questionnaire. Forty six teachers from 15 early childhood centres volunteered to participate as they believed they had an optimal outdoor setting or that aspects of their setting were optimal. All who agreed to participate and signed the consent forms and completed the questionnaire became the final participants. No centres were excluded as the investigation was not about the researcher’s judgment on what constitutes ‘optimal’ but that of the teachers in the centres. Eight of the early childhood centres were kindergartens (public and private) and seven were full-day education and care centres. One centre was in New Plymouth, two in the Waikato region, and the rest were from the Auckland region. The participants agreed that the centre’s real name, as well as the teachers’ first names, could be used. Parental permission was gained for any photographs that included children and were used in the final research report (Greenfield, 2010).

The research design generated an unobtrusive and non-reactive qualitative approach. This meant using data collection methods that did not take up any more of the teachers’ time than necessary, yet generated data that would help answer the research questions. The project employed two main qualitative research tools, a questionnaire and photographs, to reflect teachers’ perceptions of the optimal aspects of their outdoor environment. The electronic questionnaires were sent out to teachers for completion to be returned at their convenience either by mail or electronically. The participants had the option of having the lead researcher visit to take photographs of the spaces and places identified as optimal or sending in their own photographs electronically.

The questionnaire consisted of five open-ended questions that required teachers to articulate why they considered certain spaces and places, or the whole space, to be optimal. Using the questionnaire alongside the photographs provided a highly meaningful context to the spaces or places identified.

The teachers were asked:

  1. Why do you see this as an optimal space or place?
  2. Why do you consider this aspect of the outdoor environment to be so valuable in terms of children’s holistic development?
  3. What is it that you think the children like about it?
  4. What do you think contributes to this space or place being so appealing, inviting and/or well used?
  5. What are the aspects of the space or place that contribute to the overall outdoor environment of the centre?

The combination of the photographs and the written responses enabled a clear understanding of why the space or place was deemed to be a valuable part of the outdoor environment for the holistic development of young children. The photographs provided a context to the teachers’ responses and vice versa. Data generated by a qualitative research methodology specifically celebrates the qualitative aspects of early childhood, including diversity and difference. The use of an open-ended questionnaire and photographs allowed for these qualities to be made more explicit.

Three types of analysis were used: thematic, semiotic, and visual (Mutch, 2005). The thematic analysis of questionnaire responses sought the emergence of patterns and themes. The semiotic analysis focused on the composition and grammatical constructions in what the participants were saying. The visual analysis of the photographs had three components: analysis of the written responses; analysis of the themes that emerged from the questionnaire responses; and finally, asking what other features stood out; such as asking about the message given visually by the space/place.


Findings and Discussion

Some teachers identified their whole outdoor space as optimal while others identified specific spaces or places. The spaces within the outdoor area described as optimal included: trees/forest/secluded planted areas; sandpits; swings, climbing structures, and physically challenging areas like monkey bars and vegetable gardens. Certain special features were also identified as optimal: e.g. a bridge, water feature, rock garden, a designed natural area, carpentry shed, and a tree house. Eight themes or key characteristics of optimal outdoor provision emerged from the data. These characteristics are spaces and places:

  1. where children can be alone or with others.
  2. which invite and encourage a variety of opportunitie/possibilities for learning and exploration in multiple ways.
  3. which offer children choices, engendering in them a sense of ownership, contribution and responsibility for their own learning.
  4. where children can run and be physically challenged in multiple ways all year round.
  5. which are well designed, resourced, maintained, and positioned .
  6. which are aesthetically pleasing and inviting for both children and adults.
  7. which provide contact with nature and the natural world, thus promoting a sense of belonging and an understanding of life cycles which foster sustainability.
  8. which have features that are specific to that centre /community context.

Underlying these eight characteristics were two vital threads: ‘relationships’ and ‘opportunities’. There was an awareness evident in the findings that a space can promote or hinder the relationships between children, and between children and adults (Ceppi & Zini, 1998). Moreover, the relationships between spaces, either hinders or promotes opportunities /possibilities for children’s learning and development.


Relationships and opportunities

Many spaces and places in the outdoor environments were described as performing similar functions. For example, they provided multiple opportunities for playing and learning by oneself or with others and promoted relationships with people, nature, places, and things. The most salient feature of the themes which emerged can be seen in the following:

It is all about having a well-designed, attractive, comfortable, and flexible environment that allows you and the children to enjoy being together. It is a supportive environment that encourages play and learning and assures children that what they do outside is important to you. . . It is a place where children can stretch their muscles; take in sunshine; and enjoy the sights and sounds of nature. It has a variety of play materials that support development in all areas (Awhi Whanau, Teacher).

The outdoor area incorporates areas for gross motor, physical games, running, social interactions and importantly quiet places for children to be alone or work peacefully and uninterrupted with their friends (James Gray, Kindergarten Teacher).  

Children’s relationships with each other are affected by their outdoor environment, as are the relationships between teachers and children. The findings highlighted that an optimal outdoors setting provides opportunities for teachers and children to have fun together in a space that the teachers and the children enjoyed. Though research indicates that teachers often underestimate the importance of this in early childhood settings (Dudek, 2005; Greenman, 2005; Ridgway & Hammer, 2005), the teachers in this study made clear connections between the environment and relationships. They were aware too, that the environment has the power to promote relationships between all human and nonhuman participants. For example, the teachers from Early Impressions Early Learning Centre, described their water feature as a place that:

Provides opportunities to build relationships and interactions between children from differing age group and the adults in the centre, all happening in a fun and inviting way.

Similarly, the owner/teacher at Sophia Preschool, described the Gruffalo Cave as optimal. The Gruffalo Cave is in a corner of the garden, under a canopy of cherry trees and a large Banksia, behind a gazebo building. The Gruffalo Cave is very private, quiet, and secluded, providing the opportunity for children to play freely and enter imaginative worlds with friends.

The area offers opportunities for relationships, physical activity, and challenges, imaginative play and exploration of the natural world (Sophia, Preschool Teacher).

Spacious outdoor environments fostered relationships among children, and between children and teachers, and allowed for more secluded and intimate places to be created within it. In addition, the more space there is the greater the variation that can occur in the landscaping. According to Greenman (1988) more space available outdoors leads to fewer constraints of children’s behaviours and enables them to find solitude away from other children and adults, engage in solitary activity, or be in small, intimate groups. The teachers described how having a large area enabled them to provide a wide variety of experiences, open and more intimate spaces, and more variation in the landscaping.

Teachers at James Gray Kindergarten, for example, were very clear that having space, room to spread out, and plenty of equipment to go around, resulted in very few behaviour problems. Density (child-space ratio) has an influence on development and behaviour, as shown by Maxwell’s (1996) study that found that in comparison to uncrowded facilities, children in crowded centres are likely to be less cooperative and withdrawn, and to exhibit aggression and hyperactivity.


Being alone or with others

Connected to the relationships thread was a theme of providing children with a variety of spaces where they could be alone or with others. Such places included planted areas that provided a natural seclusion, more open spaces like the sandpit and swings, and secluded but welcoming constructed places, like a tree house.

A place to hide away [the tree house], a meeting place...or just relax alone or with others...a place to wonder...a space to reflect in...it is a retreat area for children...Freedom from the hustle and bustle of the larger outdoor playground...One of the only places that is not adult friendly ( too small) therefore children think that the space is theirs alone...one of the areas of the playground that children can take themselves away from others; if needed (Kids Domain Teacher).

Swinging is fun and the children like to watch the rest of the children and the centre from a distance... Invites solitary play or group play ...Swinging offers children opportunities to be solitary, reflective and quiet. (Mason Ave Kindergarten teachers).

There is a sense of being away from adults and with this comes a feeling of freedom... Sheer curtains blow in the wind giving veiled glimpses of the world outside and further adding to the sense of enclosure.…The plants and trees area is nice and open, a very natural environment rich for imaginative play. It is nice and quiet and inviting and somewhat secluded ...welcoming... The great shade given by the big trees makes the area more secluded and private. (Settlement Rd Kindergarten Teacher).

Children’s special places such as forts, dens or other places that children make their own, contribute to the development of identity and a commitment to place (Hart, 1979; Sobel, 1990). Some of these spaces were places planted with trees, bushes, and other vegetation where children could hide away but still see what was happening around them. The important characteristics of these spaces were that they are inviting, enclosing, and secluded. Places for quiet journeying, travelling, and adventures by oneself or with friends included pathways. The finding that children like to get away from the adult gaze, and to do so in a natural space, is supported in the literature. Nabhan and Trimble (1994) cited in  Young (2008, p. 47) stated that “children have an intrinsic need for concealed places with lush vegetation away from adult eyes”.


A variety of opportunities for learning and exploration

The outdoor spaces and places identified by the teachers as optimal were characterised by varied opportunities for children to explore through a variety of resources and spaces, lots of sensory experiences, places of discovery, and mystery. By identifying such areas as optimal the teachers showed an understanding   that children learn in a sensorial, holistic way.

The Gruffalo area has all these elements- a nature space, away from adults, has bird life, some odds and ends of bowls and loose parts that suggest cooking or mixing using rain water that collects in these vessels with addition of leaves and bark and stones. ( Sophia Preschool Teacher).

The provision of “loose parts” helps children to make connections, to develop possibility thinking, and advance creative expression (Tovey, 2007). Loose parts are any open-ended items that can be used in many ways and combined with other loose parts, thereby transforming them through imagination and creativity.


Having choices and a sense of belonging

Transforming spaces and objects is the play of childhood. As reflected by the teachers, opportunity to make choices and follow one’s own ideas and plans were characteristics of optimal outdoor environments. When children are offered choices it engenders in them a sense of ownership, contribution, and responsibility for their own learning. As McMillan argues, “What is important is. . .  the preparation of a provocative environment where new chances are made possible” (McMillan, 1930, cited in Tovey, 2007, p. 64).

Places that promoted children taking responsibility for their own learning ranged from fixed structures with a specific purpose, like the carpentry shed at Settlement Road Kindergarten, to very open-ended spaces like the forest area at Chelsea Kindergarten, and the fixed and moveable equipment area at Homai Kindergarten.

The carpentry shed is great because it is challenging, inviting. All the tools cater for different skills and are available. The children are free to be independent and extend their learning. . . . The carpentry shed is exciting for the children as they are given the responsibility to explore independently and safely with limited adult intervention (Settlement Rd, Kindergarten Teacher).

Privacy… a blank canvas to adapt to their games. The area has appeal because nothing has been set up – the children choose what to do (Chelsea Kindergarten Teachers).

It is the qualities of the space or place, along with the pedagogy of the teachers, which seem to give the children the freedom to be responsible. Providing spaces that allow children to have choices, to master new skills in their own time, to experiment, to rearrange and to have a sense of belonging, were all considered essential.


Being physically challenged 

Teachers identified the importance of spaces which offered multiple physical challenges. Optimal spaces included natural challenges in the outdoor environments like trees, boulders, logs and constructions using natural materials like a wooden bridge and manufactured structures like boxes, monkey bars and slides.

Open spaces enabled children to run, twirl, chase, roll and move in multiple ways and physically express themselves (Tovey, 2007). The children at Play and Learn, Clarks Beach, had regular access to the natural physical challenges that the beach (just beyond the fence) provided and this was seen as a major contribution to their whole outdoor environment being optimal. The natural challenges, in particular large established trees, were recognised as having immense value for children’s holistic development in the centres. Froebel encouraged children to take risks in the outdoors and McMillan believed that “trees are the finest kind of apparatus for climbing you can ever have” (McMillan, 1919, cited in Tovey, 2007, p. 46).

Natural risky play, tree and swing challenges for upper body strength building. . . . opportunities to swing, socialise and share, balance, and experience motion . . . inviting natural challenges – balancing steps, going through and on things. (Cambridge Kindergarten Teachers).

It [the rock garden] has been created using natural materials…it is challenging yet achievable to walk along the rocks.  Gives the feeling of following a path…the rocks are different heights and shapes… (Mason Ave Kindergarten Teachers)

The monkey bars got specific mention as being a favourite piece of equipment for the children and for the benefits they bring to children’s holistic development, just as Greenfield’s (2007a)  research had shown. Teachers at St Andrews Epsom Early Childhood Centre described the monkey bars as the most optimal aspect of their outdoor space because:

[I]t is the most popular piece of equipment for both boys and girls at our centre...We think it is great because it caters for both physical and social skills... Because it builds self esteem... Is a vehicle for lots of social interaction and social skill building... It’s RISKY!

The Homai kindergarten environment had been recently upgraded with physically challenging man-made equipment. The teachers believed this vast variety of equipment provided multiple opportunities to promote a love of physical activity, which was seen as important to foster in their community.


Spaces and places which are well designed and positioned

The teachers talked a lot about their outdoor spaces as being well designed, well maintained and well resourced; the importance of which should not be underestimated (McConaghy, 2008). Permanent features, like the sandpit being well located and designed was a clear aspect of a space being optimal. Other examples were the water feature at Early Impressions and the sandpit at Onewhero Early Learning Centre.

Its location... Its situation- middle of the playground with a grass area on one side and the sandpit not too far away where children can transport and bring in different resources... in a sunny spot. There are levels of water play space and a variety of textures to sit on and explore. The water feature is placed near the aviary and the bike path so you are never far from the action... The position of it in the middle of the playground means it divides the total playground area into two. The upper playground is mostly for active play and the lower courtyard for quiet play. The water feature is built into the natural slope of the outside space, enhancing the surrounding planting. (Early Impressions Learning Centre Teachers).

The sandpit is well designed with many levels challenging the children’s physical skills. It is large while also having a smaller level for more intimate play. The resources are close as is the water supply which encourages further learning. It is also well covered for sun protection, while the seats around one side encourage adults to be a part of the space. The natural environment is also well integrated into the space creating a safe hub for children to then move on to other areas of the outdoor play area when they feel confident. (Onewhero Early Learning Centre Teachers).

The aspects of design most referred to include the ease of access and indoor/outdoor flow; linkages and connections between places, and the location of those places within the outdoor space; children and teachers being able to observe others and the rest of the playground; and good traffic flow around the outdoor environment. In addition, being well designed included consideration of the aesthetic qualities of the setting.


Aesthetically pleasing spaces and places

A spacious, well designed, aesthetically pleasing and inviting outdoor area was seen to be intrinsically linked to optimal provision and vital for establishing and maintaining relationships. The teachers identified a range of aspects that helped create an aesthetically pleasing, polysensorial environment. They described the colours, the use of natural timbers and materials, the variety of textures in materials and planning, the utilisation of the sun-shade, and the use of water. That play spaces mirroring the beauty of nature can create aesthetically pleasing environments (Young, 2008) was clearly understood by many of the teachers. In response to the questions about what children like about the space, the teachers at Bear Park Centre of Learning responded:

We think they enjoy the natural aspect, the calming colours that don’t detract from their work and play I know the children enjoy the outside area; I have heard children say they are going ‘to the beach’ as they come into the centre and head to their classroom.  I feel there is a real connection to nature and the environment.

The teachers in all the participating centres described the sensory qualities of their spaces and places. They commented on how the outdoor environment needed to be inviting, welcoming and have great visual appeal”. The awareness of the role that aesthetics play is evident in the following quote from the Early Impression Over Twos’ teachers describing a water feature:

Trickling down of the water from the rock; They touch, feel, see and listen as the water flows down; The watch the sun as it shines through the water dripping and flowing into their buckets or through their hands trying to hold on to it... the sound of the trickling water and our children being able to sure all their senses while playing with the water.

Fences are often a forgotten feature of an outdoor setting yet they can have a powerful influence on the aesthetics of the environment. The types of fencing varied greatly across the participant centres but where there was an interesting natural feature beyond the fence then the fencing enabled a borrowing from the distant landscape. Herrington (2005) believes that walls or cage-like fencing is a worrying trend and that we need to think about how we can create fences that do not cut children off but rather invite children and give them opportunity to see and connect with what is happening in the wider world. Greenfield (2007a) found that the children endeavoured to see what was happening outside the centre grounds, especially over the fence, by climbing up on the large boxes. This reflects relationship-building beyond the centre’s fence line.

If the outdoor space is aesthetically pleasing it is almost certain that the outdoor environment will attract not only the children but the adults as well. Though the teachers did not specifically mention seating it was evident from the photographs that seating is a good example of an item that can alter the invitational level of a space. The physical placement of a seat, what it is made of, and the setting it is placed in either invite a child or adult to sit on it or not. Seating offers space for rest, talking, observing, listening, time to oneself or the telling of stories. According to Tovey (2007) seating should be varied in the direction it faces, depending on what your intention is for that space.


Contact with nature and the natural world

The importance of contact with nature in children’s lives has featured in some way in all the characteristics of an optimal outdoor space. Teachers saw that having many natural elements within the outdoor environment increased children’s opportunities to understand, learn about, and be connected to, the natural world. Children having authentic meaningful contact with nature, such as watching birds or observing insects, was seen as vital in order for them to develop deeper longer lasting relationships with the natural world. As Thompson and Thompson (2004)  cited in  Elliot and Davis (2008,  p. 11) state, “this generation more than any other before, will need the environmental awareness and citizenship that is instilled through exploration of the natural environment in childhood”. The teachers were aware of the necessity to introduce children to the concepts of sustainability. 

Within our philosophy we believe that we play a vital part in supporting children to gain a sense of belonging to the earth and a strong relationship with Paptūānuku. Childhood is the time to fall in love with the earth, for that to happen children need time, natural spaces and most importantly the freedom to explore ... The area offers opportunities for relationships, physical activity and challenges, imaginative play and exploration of the natural world... It is our hope that one day these children will in turn play their part as guardians of the earth. (Sophia Preschool Teacher).

From this study, it became evident that a strong gardening culture is developing within New Zealand early childhood centres. Alongside this is the promotion of understanding sustainability and caring for the environment that in turn not only fosters a sense of community but reaches out into the community. This is seen at Anchorage Park Kindergarten.  

Children become involved in the cycle of life and understanding the world we live in and are part of. It [gardening] is a special place that has been created through respect, love, time that has been given by not only the children and teachers but the wider community...provides a feeling of self-worth and contribution in our community...We believe that growing the food we eat is a common link between all cultures... Parents/Whanau and children take care of the garden through planning what plants will be sown, purchased and planted... The money from the sales is going toward a watering system that will save the rainwater and allow the children to water all the kindergarten gardens. We feed our vegetables worm tea from our worm farm and the worms are feed from the waste from the children’s lunch boxes. The kindy also composts other food/plant waste and is currently planting an orchard.

Te Whāriki and the New Zealand Curriculum (compulsory education sector) (Ministry of Education, 2007) contain clearly stated values regarding ecological sustainability. Findings from recent projects on promoting ecological sustainability (Duhn, Bachman, & Harris, 2010; Ritchie, 2010) indicate that both children and families were responsive to the sustainability initiatives put in place by teachers and these initiatives reached out into the wider community (Ritchie, 2010).

Children seek and need to have “relationships with the natural environment and knowledge of their own place in the environment” (Ministry of Education, 1996, p. 90). Environmental awareness and action stem from many hours spent in wild or semi-wild places during childhood, along with an adult who teaches respect for nature. Sobel (1996) states “what is important is that children have opportunity to bond with the natural world, to learn to love it before being asked to heal its wounds” (cited in Gruenewald, 2004, p. 5). Therefore the newly emerging field of early childhood environmental and nature education reflects an increasing awareness that positive interactions with the natural environment are an important part of healthy child development. The teachers in this study were clearly aware that children’s interactions with nature can foster wonder, awe, and joy. 


Reflecting the centre’s community context

Teachers nominated places and spaces with features that were particular to their community or centre. The special features varied greatly but there was an underlying congruence in why the feature contributed to the optimal quality of the outdoor environment. The reasons given were linked to the wider community and the centre’s history, as can be seen in the examples of Cambridge Kindergarten’s tractor, and the Gruffalo Cave at Sophia Preschool.

An antique tractor provides children with opportunities to climb, socialise, and engage in dramatic play. Children realise it is a play tractor and the tractor reflects the farming community the kindergarten is situated in. (Cambridge Kindergarten Teachers).

The Gruffalo Cave was built during our first year of opening as part of a strong interest in the Gruffalo books. It was never meant to last, being made of black polythene sheets and dries flax stems but as a tribute to sustainability and readily available materials it still stands. The children of that time named it the Gruffalo Cave and that is still what everyone calls it. (Sophia Preschool, Teachers).

McConaghy (2008) notes that special features are “important in linking of the play space with both the users and the local community, enhancing the diversity of play experiences” (p. 21).


Limitations and Implications

The study was not searching for the “perfect” outdoor space, because such a place does not exist (Rinaldi, 2007). Instead the findings shared in this paper have the potential to help teachers and centre owners consider their responsibility to provide experiences and create outdoor spaces where children can build relationships of care for each other, other living beings, for the place itself, and for spaces in the wider community. Further research could explore notions of ‘optimalness’ in outdoor settings, across a greater number of early childhood centres in particular those that have a greater diversity of community contexts and different types of outdoor settings. This could include the qualities that a Māori perspective would bring especially in regards to the teacher’s role as a guide, Kaitiaki mo Papatūānuku, in learning about Mother Earth and how to care for her.

This study highlighted a strong connection between the early childhood outdoor environment, and the policies, philosophies and practices of teachers and management that underpin the centres’ outdoor provision (Dowda et al, 2004; Hutt et al., 1986). Several of the respondents stated that their enjoyment of being in their outdoor environment was part of what made that environment optimal. The implications of this are clear:  the more optimal the outdoor environment is the more the teachers will want to spend time out there. “To live in an environment that has to be endured or ignored, rather than enjoyed, is to be diminished as a human being” (Sinclair Gaudie, 1969, cited in Greenman, 2005, p1).

It would be highly advantageous to discover whether the eight characteristics of optimal outdoor environments provide a useful framework for self-review. Self-review questions which also arose from the study and which have not been covered in this paper can be found in the full research report  (Greenfield, 2010). As Tovey (2007) states, there needs to be a critical appraisal of the purpose and value of our outdoor areas. We might then stop creating small outdoor spaces that barely meet the minimum space requirements, and which are covered in rubber matting upon which uninspiring and uninviting materials are placed and in which even a spider dare not spin a web. 



In conclusion, having a well-designed, aesthetically pleasing and inviting outdoor area is vital to establishing and maintaining relationships and the offering of many opportunities for learning. The location of spaces and equipment, along with aesthetics are highly influential on what children do. As the findings in the current study demonstrated, in an optimal environment, children will find, pursue, and invent their own challenges (Greenfield, 2007b; Tovey, 2007). The participating centres’ outdoor environments all contained a combination of natural, constructed, and open-ended materials, which as Greenman (2005) points out, give rise to a more creative playground. These have been found to be more attractive and preferred by children.

Creating an optimal outdoor environment, however, is not an end in itself, it is a fluid, on-going process that requires teachers, managers, and playground designers, to have a “critical pedagogy of place” (Gruenewald, 2003). Such pedagogy challenges all educators to reflect on the relationships between the kind of education they pursue and the kind of places they inhabit and leave behind for future generations. Though the notion of a critical pedagogy of place is still not widely understood in early childhood education, Te Whāriki principles and the emphasis on “children [and families] experience an environment where” throughout that document certainly provides a platform upon which we can critique outdoor provision in early childhood centres (Ministry of Education, 1996).

Children need teachers who appreciate and value the opportunities for growth and development the outdoors can provide. Well-designed, aesthetically pleasing environments provide the teachers who have knowledge, skills and advocacy the opportunity to ensure that a young child’s experiences in the outdoors areas are rich with stimulation, meaningful and as optimal as possible. Optimal outdoor environments are essential because being outside is essential for us all, both children and teachers.



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This research was funded and granted ethical approval by the Manukau Institute of Technology. The researcher is very indebted to the teachers from the participating centres for their willingness to share their beliefs, thoughts and photographs. The researcher also thanks the Manukau Institute of Technology Early Childhood Outdoor Reference Group members for their enthusiasm and contribution to this project.


About the Author

Cheryl Greenfield is a Senior Lecturer at the Manukau Institute of Technology and Programme Leader of the Bachelor of Education (Early Childhood Teaching) programme. She has completed several studies on children perspectives on the early childhood outdoor environments they spend time in and in 2011 published the second edition of her book Outside is where we need to be: A guide to providing optimal outdoor environments in early childhood settings.



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