Outdoor Unstructured Play: What It Is, Why It’s Important, and How to Do More of It

by | Jul 13, 2022 | Educators, Parents

Outdoor play can be the greatest vessel for exploration… providing endless opportunity to slow down, observe, and inquire, or speed up, run, and be active. We can take a quiet moment to watch a bug, or spend an afternoon lugging around sticks and logs to build an awesome fort. We can slow our minds or busy our bodies. In the outdoors, we are able to meet our needs, whatever they may be.

Regardless of whatever activity we choose to pursue, simply spending time outdoors lowers stress hormones, reduces our heart rate, and can promote the release of dopamine and serotonin in our bodies – providing biological responses that actually make us happier and more relaxed. Such a simple, yet powerful tool for improving wellbeing!

About the Author

Creative Seeds is an organization committed to outdoor play and supporting families in raising healthier generations. We use art, nature and play based learning to help childcare providers, children, and families get outside.

At Creative Seeds, we believe in the power of unstructured outdoor play. We have observed through over 500 hours of time spent outdoors with children (this year alone!) the benefits that come from spending time playing outside. From painting pictures outside, making (many) mud pies, rolling snowballs, and playing in a sprinkler… through every new outdoor activity, we’ve seen positive correlations with increased social skills and physical and mental health! Outdoor play has supported the children in our care in building healthier bodies and minds.

What is outdoor unstructured play?

Outdoor play itself could be defined as any playful activity that takes place outside – which can take the form of structured activities (like sports or other organized activities) or unstructured play. While both are important and beneficial, we place extra value on unstructured play. We believe that while structured activities may be fun, playful, and engaging, we believe the true nature of “play” is imaginative and free.

Outdoor unstructured play (or free play) is essentially child-driven play in an environment that contains open air and nature (earth/dirt, bugs, birds, and other creatures, water, etc.). Children are encouraged to pursue whatever activities they feel inspired to do using their natural settings.

“Nature is a tool to get children to experience not just the wider world, but themselves.” – Stephen Moss

The benefits of outdoor, unstructured play

  • The freedom to dictate the nature of play results in time spent lost in exploration, imagination and adventure, breathing fresh air and embracing the benefits of nature.
  • The self-driven component of this unstructured play translates to the development of confidence, independence, and resiliency.
  • Outdoor free play is also a highly accessible way for all children and people to access the benefits of being outside – no requirements, no barriers. It simply is what you want it to be! When we provide unstructured play opportunities in the great outdoors, we allow children to engage within their own abilities and interests.
  • It creates a non-competitive environment where outdoor play can be whatever one chooses, and not what someone else is guiding or prescribing.
  • The freedom and dynamism of free play can allow the quiet child who prefers to draw to reap the benefits of drawing in nature, all the while also provide the boisterous child who likes to climb an opportunity to challenge themselves.

Here are some powerful examples we’ve seen

  • Children challenging themselves by climbing a tree
    • developing bi-lateral muscle control
    • developing the ability to assess their ability and the risk
    • gaining confidence from achieving something they thought not possible
  • Children walking home in unpleasant weather
    • shaping a growth mindset
    • sharing a tough time with friends and learning about encouragement – cheering each other on
    • learning perseverance and resiliency – that all they had to do was keep going and eventually they would be home to get warm and dry
  • The regulating effect of being outdoors
    • emotional regulation with children who struggle to manage big emotions
    • the calming, grounding effect through biological responses that impact us all – but especially children who struggle to tame big feelings of anger or sadness
    • learning about being outside as a simple tool to help with emotional regulation

Outdoor unstructured play in early childhood education

With a strong focus on safety, early learning has shifted away from the unstructured outdoor play in favor of safer and more academic endeavors. At what consequence though …?

According to the 2020 ParticipACTION Report Card on Physical Activity for Children and Youth gave Canadian children and youth an F for active play, due to the fact that only 21% of 5- to 11-year-olds engage in active play and non-organized or unstructured leisure for more than 1.5 hours per day, on average. This represents a decline from a D assigned in 2018. With less children meeting physical activity recommendations, early childhood educators can make a difference by providing ample outdoor play during care hours.

The return to outdoor play is a growing practice in early childhood communities across the world, from forest nursery schools in the United Kingdom, to nature childcares, and forest preschools here in Canada. While unstructured outdoor play is not a new concept, we are seeing a return to ways that seemed long forgotten, with early childhood education programs making efforts to bring back this type of outdoor play.

Because early childhood educators care for children for large portions of time during the week, we can have profound impacts on the amount and type of physical activity in children’s lives. Let’s explore how we as early childhood educators can add more unstructured outdoor play into our days.

How to provide more opportunities for outdoor play

  1. Keep it simple.
    • Outdoor play should not and does not have to be complicated. Oftentimes getting the children out the door is hard enough. Keep outdoor play intentional and simple. At Creative Seeds we often use recycled materials, thrifted materials, or found/ natural items. Add water, mud, or natural materials and prepare for endless hours of fun!
    • Create scenarios / set ups that invite the children to play using materials that are simple and can be found around most homes or natural spaces.
    • Source materials that are open ended and can have more than one purpose. Some of our favorite materials include… milk crates, lumber scraps, loose fabric, tires, spools, paints, water, dirt, shovels and buckets etc.
    • Set these materials up in ways that allow children to take the lead and create their own play. Some great examples of our favorite ways to set up these materials include…
      • toy cars and lumber scraps to make ramps
      • old pots and pans and some water or mud
      • plants or flowers from the garden
      • plastic animals
      • beach toys like shovels and buckets
      • soapy water and sponges to wash toys
    • Ultimately allowing children to take the lead and use these materials in new and imaginative ways will provide extended time outdoors and more opportunities for building creativity and confidence.Even something as simple as a walk (consider a child-led walk – more on this below) is a great way to engage children
  2. “No such thing as bad weather … just bad clothing”.
    • This old Nordic proverb rings true for our Canadian climate. Although it could be added that sometimes we can plan the wrong activity for the weather as well. In cold/ wet weather, the right clothes can make a huge difference.
    • This applies to children and educators alike, if you aren’t dressed to stay dry and warm, then the outdoor play session will likely be shorter and less comfortable.  Check out this getting dressed for the outdoor guide for tips for what to wear.
  3. Plan appropriate activities
    • The right activity also makes a big difference. Active, boisterous play is best in cooler weather. It keeps you warmer and prevents anyone from overheating. In warmer weather opt for slower play, incorporate cool water, and hang in shady areas.
  4. Follow the child’s lead.
    • When we follow the lead of a child in nature, we can discover so many more opportunities to learn and explore. Children’s natural curiosity, and the wonder of the natural world go hand in hand. When we slow down to a child’s pace, we can discover new opportunities for outdoor play.
    • Next time you go outside, try a child-led walk, which is a great way to spend time outdoors and is a simple and effective activity. Gear up, head outside and let the children lead the way. Walk at their pace, stopping and letting them observe and be curious, and go the directions they are interested in!

“Encourage your child to have muddy, grassy or sandy feet by the end of each day, that’s the childhood they deserve.” – Penny Whitehouse

Learn More

For more activities to enjoy the outdoors, as well as tips, tricks and ideas follow @playcreativeseeds on Instagram or Creative Seeds on Facebook.

You can also find us online at www.creativeseeds.ca for more information on the programming we offer. Let’s work together to bring more outdoor play to children everywhere.