The Dirt on Outdoor Play

Wednesday, April 11, 2018

Children are naturally curious and motivated to learn about their environment and surroundings. They do this by asking questions and talking about their experiences. What better way to explore their world than by being outside enjoying it?  Free and unstructured play outdoors encourages problem solving, social skills and many other forms of development. It’s an ideal environment for experiential learning, as it offers unique opportunities to be creative, to move around, and for children to make choices, be loudor quiet. 

Outside, kids can explore, take risks, run as fast as they can, jump, climb, shout and sing. It also provides them with the space and environment to be peaceful, to be still, calm, to lay down and look up at the sky, to enjoy the silence or sounds of nature around them. To make their choice to follow a path that interests them. As well as providing opportunities for creative play and being resourceful, outdoor play promotes a sense of confidence and wellbeing. Please contact Playgroup SA if you would like information and support in setting up an outdoor Playgroup or want to know more about outdoor play opportunities for young children on (free call) 1800 171 882.

Suggestions for taking your Playgroup into the Great Outdoors

Open the doors

Where possible, allow children to move freely between the indoors and outdoors. Find a safe way to keep the doors open to the outside area so the children can make a choice to go outside. That way they can go where their imagination or curiosity takes them.

Get out and about

To freely enjoy the great outdoors, why not arrange a playgroup excursion once a month or term? Meet at parklands or a local park with large open spaces and trees where children can run freely, climb and explore. They’ll love having no barriers or obstacles to their play. Have a picnic with fruit and a drink and bring everyone together towards the end of the session. You can still have your story time and song time to finish off the playgroup. Children (including the younger ones) will make the link that it is the same group of friends from playgroup.

Let them dig

Children love digging in the dirt! Provide some tools they can use to dig with. They will use their own creative thinking and problem solving and will find their own objects to bury. So you will know where to look if that crucial piece of Duplo is missing!  Leave buckets and a box of digging equipment close to an area where they can dig. Let them investigate and experiment with their tools. And let them get dirty and messy. If space is limited, bring your own child-safe dirt or soil and place in buckets, containers or recycled boxes for them to dig in. Provide all natural resources wherever possible.

Mud pies and mud kitchens

If there’s water close by, make mud pies. This is sticky, fun and serious business! Set up an area of wooden shelves, tree stumps and crates to allow children to design their own mud ‘kitchen’. Step back and let them take over – it’s the perfect opportunity for experiential learning and problem solving.

Get growing

Planting is an all-time favourite playgroup activity in spring, but autumn is also a great time to get out into the garden.  It’s messy, fun, promotes learning about plant growth and foods and is a great task for playgroupers and adults to enjoy together. Plant seedlings in old gum boots and attach them to the playgroup fencing or grounds. Use wooden pallets to create a garden bed (ensure pallets are safely secured if positioned vertically). Ask local gardening businesses if they would like to donate some seeds and soil (suitable for children) to your playgroup. Contact your local Bunnings store and ask them to organise a planting session with you.

Let’s explore!

Children love to explore and look for treasure. Let them put together an explorer’s kit and venture outside with it. Provide an area with magnifying glasses, compasses, binoculars (or make craft items), hats, clipboards, pencils or crayons. They’ll need a bag to put their items in, too.


Create your own treasure hunt by placing natural objects such as small sticks or rows of rocks along the ground in the shape of an arrow. Bury treasures in the sandpit or garden and set out to collect them.

Log circles

Log seats or circles are beautiful areas for playgroups to sit. Try to place log seating in an undercover area for a cubby house effect.

Outdoor play for babies

Babies love the outdoors too! For babies, being exposed to the outdoors gives them a range of essential sensory experiences and assists in learning of the world around them, promoting healthy development. We suggest a baby area is always set up indoors at playgroup and the same principle applies for outdoor spaces. Provide babies with a safe space by taking the baby mats and gym outside to enjoy.

Outdoor experiences for babies and young toddlers can include:

  • Feeling grass, sand and wind on their face.
  • Grasping leaves.
  • Hearing birds, swaying trees, the wind.
  • Looking at the clouds and the sky.
  • Laying and crawling on grass.
  • Watching wildlife.