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Calm, active and focused: Children’s responses to an organic outdoor learning environment


Play in natural schoolyard is associated with increased physical activity, calm and focused play, and social interaction

Research shows that play in natural outdoor play spaces is beneficial to children’s physical and mental health. The aim of Nedovic and Morrissey’s research was to facilitate the redevelopment of an early childhood center’s outdoor play space to be more natural and organic (based on staff and student preferences) and understand staff’s perceptions of children’s responses to the redevelopment of their outdoor play area. The research methodology was an action research approach case study of one early childhood center in a middle class area of Melbourne, Australia. Action research is based on a process of planning, action, observation, and reflection. The authors started by soliciting feedback from center staff (a teacher, an assistant, and the center director) on what they would like to see in the new outdoor play area. To get student feedback, students (18 three- and four-year olds) drew pictures of their ideal play spaces, took photos of the parts of the garden most important to them, and participated in group discussions about their favorite things to play with in gardens. The researchers wrote an action plan based on staff and student feedback, produced a garden design with staff, and implemented new garden features over a six-week period. New features were introduced one at a time each week. To help researchers understand their perceptions about students’ responses to the new play area, two staff members (the teacher and assistant) recorded observations of student play each week based on a series of open-ended questions during and after the redevelopment of the garden. Researchers read these observations and discussed them with staff members.

Researchers found center staff and students had very similar preferences for the outdoor play area including the use of natural elements and open-ended learning experiences; these preferences were incorporated into the play area plan. Changes to the play area included a new tepee, replacement of a concrete path with mulch, green and flower plantings, and new natural loose materials. Staff members observed a range of positive benefits among the children including richer and longer-lasting imaginative play, a increased sense of security and stability, an increase in physical activity and physical confidence, an increase in and enhancement of small group interactions, and an increase in and more in-depth dramatic play. Staff also observed several mental health benefits including an increase in calm and relaxation, slower and more concentrated play, and increased ability to deal with separation anxiety. In terms of negative effects of the new play area, staff mentioned children using the tepee as something to hide behind to engage in prohibited activities and an increase in children damaging plants. These findings provide evidence that play in natural outdoor areas may foster focus and calm in children.


Nedovic, S., Morrissey, A., (2013). Calm, active and focused: Children’s responses to an organic outdoor learning environment. Learning Environments Research, 16(2), 281-295.


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