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‘The woods is a more free space for children to be creative; their imagination kind of sparks out there’: exploring young children’s cognitive play opportunities in natural, manufactured and mixed outdoor preschool zones


Natural and mixed (natural combined with manufactured) playgrounds yield more opportunities for cognitive play, challenging experiences, and knowledge of the environment than traditional playgrounds.

This study compared the perspectives of both young children and teachers concerning the cognitive play opportunities in three different outdoor preschool zones: natural (woods), manufactured (traditional playground) and mixed (both natural and manufactured) zones. Both qualitative and quantitative data were collected regarding cognitive play behaviors young children enjoy, the settings and elements offering these opportunities, and the educational value of the three different play zones.

Qualitative data included the views of young children about their outdoor preschool environments and teachers’ professional opinions and perceptions relative to the cognitive play value of each of the playground zones. Quantitative data was collected through behavior mapping of 36 preschool children (age 4 -5) during outdoor free play. While there was some racial/ethnic diversity in the group, most of the children participating in this study were Caucasian with high socio-economic backgrounds.

Twenty-two children were interviewed during preschool hours inside the school building. Each child was asked to select from photographs or draw a picture of their favorite outdoor play area. They were also asked to explain why they liked the selected areas and what they enjoyed doing in those areas. For some of the children (those with the patience to continue), the interview included a discussion about places they disliked in the outdoor play area.

One-on-one interviews were also conducted with four early childhood teachers. Interview questions focused on their perceptions of the outdoor environment as a learning area, which areas the children liked most, the kinds of play behaviors children engaged in while playing in their preferred areas, and which areas they believed offered the most “educational” experiences for the children. The interviews for both the teachers and children were recorded, transcribed, classified and coded.

Behavior mapping occurred over a 7 day period and included 12 sessions of 45 minutes each. Each play area was divided into multiple observation zones, and the observer was positioned in an easy-to-scan position in each area. Each child within the observation zone was observed for 10 seconds and then recorded for 20 seconds. Rubin’s Play Observation Scale was used as the basis for recording children’s cognitive play behaviors. The behavior mapping data — consisting of over 2000 observational data points in each zone — were inserted into the Geographical Information Science program.

While the behavior mapping data indicated that children’s time in each of the three different play zones was almost evenly distributed, the type of play in each zone differed. The natural zone yielded the lowest percentage of non-play behavior, while the manufactured zone had the highest percentage of functional (play involving repetitive motor activity) and non-play behavior. The natural zone accounted for 45% of the total exploratory play, mixed zone 42.7%, and traditional zone only 12.3%. The natural zone also provided more dramatic play than the other two zones and almost twice as much constructive play as the manufactured zone. Teachers indicated that loose parts in the natural and mixed play zones seemed to increase the duration and imaginative quality of the children’s play. The integration of natural and manufactured elements supported a wider range of cognitive play than was provided in either the natural or the manufactured zones individually. Both children and teachers indicated that the natural and mixed zones offered more opportunities for appropriately risky play than the manufactured zone. Children’s expressed preference for play involving risks and challenges was supported by the teachers. The teachers also indicated that the natural environment provided a stimulus for teamwork, social interaction, imagination, sense of responsibility, competence and increased knowledge of the environment.


Zamani, Z., (2016). ‘The woods is a more free space for children to be creative; their imagination kind of sparks out there’: exploring young children’s cognitive play opportunities in natural, manufactured and mixed outdoor preschool zones. Journal of Adventure Education and Outdoor Learning, 16(2), 172-189.


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