Children’s physical activity & movement in outdoor landscapes – What matters to early childhood educators?




What do children need for active play in the outdoors?

In-depth research with six early childhood educators revealed what mattered to them when thinking about young children moving and being active in outdoor learning environments.

According to these educators children need to:

  • explore and practice fundamental movements;
  • have freedom & open space to move;
  • manipulate movable natural elements;
  • develop confidence & skills for being in outdoor spaces;
  • build awareness of others, their own bodies & moving safely outdoors;
  • traverse variable terrain & surrounding landscapes;
  • negotiate safety-risk challenges.

Building blocks for movement and physical activity in outdoor spaces

Also of interest were the natural elements the educators felt were important for children’s active play & movement in outdoor eco-systems:

  • Stepping stones for balancing;
  • Trees branches, upright logs & tree stumps supporting different forms of movement to varied heights: children gain confidence – climbing, jumping from heights, stepping and balancing on/off asymmetric fixtures;
  • Hills & mounds supporting different gross motor experiences for children of different ages – crawling up/down, running up/down and rolling down for example;
  • Variable surfaces, textures & levels supporting varied movement: stimulating balance-co-ordination, body-safety-risk awareness, awareness of different surfaces under foot & different ways to move-negotiate space.
  • Loose movable natural elements rocks, branches, pine cones, gum nuts supporting different types of “fine motor imaginative creative type play”. These loose moveable elements potentially stimulate combined manipulative & locomotor experiences, spatial awareness & object control e.g. foraging, weeding, picking, & ferrying of materials around an outdoor space.

All of the above are potential design ingredients for kinaesthetic-rich outdoor learning environments.


Deeper analysis of what some educators were seeing revealed rich understandings of how kinaesthetic learning can be built upon through observation of children responding to outdoor environments. As a result a vision emerges that considers children’s balance skills and variable terrain; the presence of loose natural parts and children’s adaptive manipulative movement play. This level of analysis matters because it provides an understanding of how educators can more closely observe what children might be learning when physically active in outdoor landscapes (Wishart 2018).


Thank you to the six early childhood educators participating in this study and the auspice agencies, UNE and Deakin University for supporting this research.


Wishart, L. (2018). Early childhood educator perceptions of children’s physical activity and the outdoors. NZ International Research in Early Childhood Education Journal, 21(1), 1–16. Retrieved from


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