For children play is learning. Outdoor free play prepares children’s brains and bodies for formal classroom learning. In a rapidly changing world, it develops key skills and attributes including empathy, resilience, flexibility and problem-solving skills. Outdoor free play helps children develop positive connections with their peers, environment and communities. Outdoor free play also has the potential to engage a child in their education in a significant and meaningful way across all areas of the curriculum. Throughout childhood, free play nurtures a child’s development physically, emotionally, socially and academically.  
Outdoor free play is in decline across Australia and the developing world with potential ongoing detrimental developmental impacts. Reasons for this decline are complex and multi-dimensional. Cross-departmental collaboration and wide community support are essential to bridge the growing gap between a lack of daily outdoor free play and a full and healthy childhood. Historically play has been essential to development and learning. Outdoor Play is Everybody’s Business!


This document is part of series of evidence-based position statements focused on childhood and outdoor free play. They aim to demonstrate the importance, benefits, issues as well as actions required to support children to grow healthy, happy and strong through regular daily outdoor free play.  
What follows is the product of a thorough examination of key educational benefits and issues associated with daily outdoor free play in modern childhood. Central to this document are key considerations and recommendations to enable real and meaningful changes that both safeguard childhood and support child development.

EDUCATION BENEFITS - For children outdoor play is learning

  • Through outdoor free play children develop:
    • Social and interpersonal skills (empathy, negotiation, compromise, leadership, self-confidence, self-awareness and self-regulation),
    • Motor skills and physical literacy,
    • Mastery and a sense of accomplishment,
    • An improved executive functioning,
    • An increased psychological well-being,
    • An enhanced sense of curiosity, resilience and problem-solving skills,
    • Adaptability and the capacity to respond to changing circumstances,
    • An understanding of their environment,
    • Healthy habits and attitudes that can predict health in adulthood, (Sources e.g.: Barker et al., 2014; Beyer et al., 2015a; Bragg et al., 2013; Dolinsky et al., 2011; Gill, 2014; Gray et al., 2015; Hinkley, 2008; Lachowycz & Jones, 2011; Little & Wyvie, 2008; Malone & Waite, 2016; Payne, Townsend & Foster, 2013; Tremblay et al., 2015).
  • Outdoor classrooms increase motivation and improve a child’s academic performance (e.g. American Institutes for Research, 2005; Waite et al., 2016; Winters et al., 2010).
  • A child’s health impacts on its ability to learn and develop. Children who are physically active are less likely to suffer from acute or chronic health problems. They are also more likely to have enhanced psychological wellbeing and reductions in stress, anxiety and depression (AEDC, 2016).
  • Children who do not have opportunities to play particularly outdoors and with other children demonstrate increased evidence of anxiety, depression, feelings of helplessness and narcissism (Gray, 2011; Jarvis, Newman & Swiniarski, 2014).
  • Outdoor experiential learning increases student engagement, motivation and concentration (American Institutes for Research, 2005; Waite et al., 2016; Winters et al., 2010).
  • Outdoor play and learning is a potential tool for engaging students with special needs and at risk learners (Ungar et al, 2005).
  • Natural play spaces encourage free play, provide changing stimuli and encourage greater levels of physical activity in comparison to indoor environments (Janssen & Rosu, 2015).
  • Opportunities for outdoor free play in childhood are predictors for social success and individual adaptability (Greve and Thomson, 2016; Barker et al., 2014; Lillard et al., 2013).
  • Rather than being merely a light-hearted act, different types of play (e.g. constructive, pretend / imaginary, physical, social, associative) are considered essential building blocks in a child’s development (Dore, Smith & Lillard, 2015; Howard & McInnes, 2012; Pellis, Pellis & Himmler, 2014).
  • Historically, play has been understood as crucial to a child’s education, learning and development by key educational theorists including Piaget, Vygotsky and Bruner (Little, 2017).
  • ‘Risky play’ teaches children to manage risk, respond to challenge, explore boundaries, decrease conflict sensitivity, problem solve, build self-confidence and it gives children a sense of achievement (Brussoni et al., 2015; Gill, 2007; Greenfield, 2004; Lavrysen et al., 2015; Little & Wyver, 2008).

THE PROBLEM - Decline of outdoor free play is an education issue

  • Australian teacher training includes minimal reference to play for those teaching beyond prep (Davey, 2012).
  • There is increased competition for children’s time. This includes competition from television, computers and tablets (Long, 2017; Skar et al., 2016; Brussoni et al., 2015; Bell et al., 2015; Mc Curdy et al. 2010), organised sports, extra-curricular activities and a focus on using out of school hours for homework and preparation for testing (Gray et al., 2015; Skar et al., 2016).
  • While many educators are key advocates for outdoor free play, policy and procedures, school or centre designs and approaches to teaching and learning can restrict children’s access and opportunities to participate in outdoor free play (Chancellor, 2013; Hyndman & Telford, 2015).
  • Approaches to safety that limit children’s play are often seen as simpler than seeking holistic solutions that encourage free play (Squelch, 2013).
  • Only 19% of Australian children aged 5 - 17 years meet physical activity guidelines of at least 60 minutes of moderate to vigorous physical activity a day (AHAK, 2016).
  • Less than 20% of Australian children aged 5 -17 meet overall recommended physical activity levels (AHAK, 2016).
  • Only 26% of 2 - 4 year olds and 30% of 5 - 17 year olds meet the sedentary behaviours screen time guidelines everyday (AHAK 2016).
  • According to the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare (2016) anxiety disorders form the second highest source of burden of disease among 5 -14 year old boys and depressive disorders fall within the top 5. For girls aged 5 - 14 years old, anxiety disorders are identified as the top source of burden of disease with depressive disorders identified as the 3rd source.
  • According to the Australian Early Development Census (AEDC, 2015), 1 in 5 children are developmentally vulnerable across at least one measured domain. The proportion of children vulnerable in physical health and wellbeing, social competence and emotional maturity increased in 2015 from previous results. 
  • In Queensland, 1 in 4 children are identified as developmentally vulnerable in one or more domains (26.1%); the percentage of children developmentally vulnerable in each domain and in one or two or more domains is higher than any other state other than the Northern Territory (AEDC, 2015).

KEY CONSIDERATIONS- Educators/centers and schools can reduce barriers and enhance opportunities for outdoor free play

  • Schools and centres can take a leadership role within their communities to build a culture that not only accepts outdoor play but facilitates, values and celebrates it.
  • Key barriers to children’s outdoor free play include parental habits and fears and an increased competition for children’s leisure time for screen time, homework, sport and extra-curricular activities. In this context, educators have a role to play in communicating the importance of outdoor play for children’s cognitive development, learning, physical and mental health.
  • School spaces can provide students with a range of opportunities for active, creative and diverse play, providing a mix of stimuli, including treed areas, bush spaces, open green spaces and loose parts playgrounds.
  • Outdoor free play should be integrated across policy and educational approaches in recognition that outdoor free play is essential for children’s learning and development and not secondary to more formal types of teaching and learning. This recognition should also be reflected in allocated time and space.
  • Health and safety strategies, policies and messaging should recognise the importance of outdoor free play, while seeking holistic solutions to risk that collectively make society, institutions (schools and centres) and play spaces safer without limiting outdoor play options.
  • It is valuable to involve children and families in designing and managing play spaces and creating risk management strategies.
  • With shrinking neighbourhood green spaces and backyard play spaces, school grounds can become important potential play spaces and community hubs for autonomous play opportunities.
  • Children from racial or ethnic minorities, particularly in urban environments and those from low socio-economic backgrounds are disadvantaged in their access to natural areas for play and frequency of visits to natural/green spaces.
  • Educators, government funding agencies and policy makers can identify these disadvantaged groups and work with parents to help breakdown access barriers.

Next Steps -  Aligning Outdoor Play and Education

Strengthening children and their learning

Building educational environments and practices that enable, encourage and celebrate outdoor free play aligns with many Queensland Government education initiatives. Outdoor learning is intrinsically embedded in the ‘Age Appropriate Pedagogies’ framework. The importance of health and wellbeing is recognised in Education Queensland’s Student Learning and Wellbeing Framework. The Advancing Education Action Plan recognises the importance of education in nurturing innovative lifelong learners that can respond positively to change.  The plan also highlights the importance of nurturing global citizens capable of forming respectful relationships and connecting locally and globally. 

Schools, with their central position in the community, can take a lead in valuing and promoting outdoor free play and its contributions to students’ learnings.

Outdoor learning and learning through play offers endless opportunities to encourage engagement across the curriculum including science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM). Nature provides diverse stimuli and allows children to develop their own relationships and curiosity for how things work, the natural world and Australia’s diverse landscapes and biology. Natural spaces could form a significant point of engagement for girls and indigenous students, with both groups underrepresented in STEM subjects.

Nature Play QLD currently engages with thousands of Queensland educators through initiatives such as Outdoor Classroom Day, professional development opportunities for early childhood and primary educators, recognition initiatives and the provision of free resources and events. 

Nature Play QLD would like to invite Education Queensland to continue to strengthen their engagement and leadership regarding outdoor learning and free play. Five key suggestions are:

  1. Continuing to collaborate with Nature Play QLD on the role out of Outdoor Classroom Day as a key strategy to engage educators in outdoor learning,
  2. Meeting with Nature Play QLD to discuss potential opportunities to incorporate outdoor free play into relevant Education Queensland policy, curriculum and strategic plans,
  3. Meeting with Nature Play QLD to explore potential opportunities to incorporate the topic of outdoor learning and free play into professional development and training and pre-service training,
  4. Exploring potential funding opportunities for advocacy and direct initiatives that increase children’s access to outdoor learning and outdoor free play,
  5. Collaborating with Nature Play QLD to develop a suite of outdoor learning and outdoor free play resources and advocacy documents for educators and parents.


The Outdoor Play is Everyone’s Business Position Statements were developed by Nature Play QLD

Ph: 07 3367 1989



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