What makes a good play garden?

What makes a good play garden?

Before the design process begins, teams need to be very clear about what they want their outdoor space to do for their children.  Time spent visioning and reaching a shared sense of purpose is time well spent.  A clear brief for the designer to work from (whether this is a professional designer or the setting itself) will make a huge difference to how well the new space works for both children and adults.  Most importantly, settings need to articulate what they want the environment to feel like, what children will be able to do in it and what learning and development it needs to support.

Rather than attempting to ‘take the indoors out’, it is absolutely vital that the play environment captures the special nature of the outdoors to offer children what the indoors cannot.  The outdoors is different to the indoors and this is why it matters for children.  If we don’t harness this potential, we are missing the point – and missing the huge capacity of the outdoors to help young children thrive and grow, adding greatly to what the indoors can offer.  This should be the focus for outdoor provision, complementing and extending what children can experience indoors [1].

A good outdoor space responds to what children want to do
This is a good place to start thinking and team discussion.  By considering the particular children in the setting and the overall aims for the service, settings can draw up a master list of what they want children to be able to do through the outdoor provision.  This might include opportunities to:

Story telling – run climb, pedal, throw…
 – be excited, adventurous, energetic, messy, noisy…
 – hide, be secret, relax, find calm, reflect, be alone…
 – talk, interact, develop friendships…
 – imagine, dream, invent…
 – create, construct, dismantle…
 – explore, discover, experiment…
 – dig, grow, nurture…
 – make sounds and music, express feelings and ideas…
 – explore materials, make marks and patterns…
 – be trusted, have responsibility…
 – be independent, initiate, collaborate…[2]

A good outdoor space gives children the right messages
The place we are in has a strong influence on how we feel, behave and think about ourselves.  It is very important to be aware of the messages you want children to feel and come to believe about themselves when they are in your outdoor space, so that you can be sure that the environment is supporting you in your aims for children.  Positive messages can be consciously built into the design and the way you support children to use the environment, and it might be that:

Mud Kitchen– they are good to be with – it’s great to be doing things together outdoors;
 – they can feel good in their body – responding to children’s drives for doing, moving and using their whole body, and helping them to take pleasure in how that makes them feel;
 – they are capable and competent – offering the right level of intellectual, emotional and physical provocation and challenge, and using experiences to help children gradually learn how to look after themselves and others;
 – they are trusted and responsible – setting things up so that children can play independently and support each other, and providing plenty of first-hand experiences and meaningful real tasks;
 – they are curious and adventurous – offering an environment full of irresistible spaces, materials and experiences;
 – they are creative and inventive – having an open, flexible approach that encourages young children’s great imaginations and values the unexpected.

A good outdoor space has certain special characteristics
 It is highly multi-sensory – sight, sound, texture, temperature, movement, smell and taste.  The outdoors has huge potential in this area, especially when it has sand, water, grass, wood, stone, vegetation and other natural materials.  Movement, balance, coordination and body awareness are vital internal sensory systems that the outdoors can be very strong at developing.  When the boundaries of the outdoor space are open enough, the locality and community beyond can add another layer of sensory richness to children’s experiences.

Course with Jan White at Playgarden It has lots of nature and vegetation.  Outdoor spaces that are playground-like tend to be low in this, but children have a great need for nurturing contact with the natural world, and nature strongly supports play.  Plants can be used to provide places for children to be in amongst, where they are touching and being touched by nature as they play, and as play props to support imaginative and creative play.  A great deal is also gained from growing and taking care of plants together, especially when these become part of the play environment.

 It has several kinds of surfaces.  Children working on locomotion and coordination need a variety of surfaces that demand a range of body control, attention and effort, such as grass, paving, sand, gravel, bark, packed earth and decking.  They need uneven and less predictable surfaces, surfaces with gradients, surfaces that ‘give’ underfoot and surfaces with a variety of levels.  They need to clamber and to master the art of going up and down slopes and steps, and they revel in being higher up where they get different perspectives and a sense of being ‘big’.

 It provides a variety of spaces and places to be different in.  Space has a significant impact on young children, sending strong messages about how to be and behave.  Large open spaces demand an energetic response; pathways pull children to take journeys along them; small spaces such as corners and amongst bushes encourage daydreaming, intimacy and imaginative play.  A good outdoor space has the capacity to provide a range of simple and complex spaces where children can be by themselves or with others and explore the many different ways of playing.

 It provides for refuge and reverie.  Young children need frequent restoration breaks from active and social play and must be able to find nurturing spots where they can withdraw or control the amount of sensory input and interaction.  This softness and nurture might be offered through providing places to get inside or underneath, places to stop and sit (including adult laps), places to stand and watch and places away from high activity, as well as shelter, shade and security.

Mud Digging Pit It has the right kinds of materials and resources.  These draw on what young children really want to do and know about and support the way they want to play. Open-ended, versatile and easily manipulated resources have an enormous range of possibilities for play, can be used by every child in different ways, and can be whatever the child wants them to be.  The plentiful availability of materials such as water, sand, mud and gravel, and resources such as crates, boxes, tyres, ropes and fabric, leads to high levels of motivation and inventiveness.  A water supply outdoors is essential.

 It is flexible and responsive to what children want to do.  An environment that children can manipulate, change and mould to make their own use of it, creating their own structures and experiences, is a highly enabling environment that puts the child in control as author and architect of the play, bringing high levels of involvement and creativity.  Flexibility also allows adults to modify how the space is arranged once they have had time to find out how well it is working for everyone.

 It is familiar and easy for children and adults to use.  Good quality play and learning can only occur where the child feels secure, understands the environment as a whole and can make good use of it.  Children should be supported to make their own choices about where and what to play, and to select resources easily and independently from a consistently well-organised and continuously available bank.  Layout, movement, storage and resource organisation are key to the effective use of the space by children and adults.

  maths outdoors 1Transition between inside and outside works well.  This is a very important, but often neglected, area that joins up the two halves of the setting’s learning environment and enables their use in a linked way.  It involves much more than simply a place to change clothing as it is also the place where children decide whether to go outside at all, what to do there and receive signals to help adjust their behaviour on coming back in.  Practical issues, such as toilets, clothing, tissues and hand washing can also be solved by considering these as part of the transition zone.

 Adults are comfortable and able to really engage with children.  Weather-appropriate clothing is crucial for adults to be able to enjoy being outside with children for long periods, and could be incorporated into the transition zone.  Secure entrances/exits and boundaries allow adults to relax about letting children move around freely.  Well-placed, sheltered and comfortable seating enables adults to be attentive observers who can tune into the real meaning of children’s play, and to be available to children as they play or need a moments’ restorative cuddle.

Each of these characteristics needs careful consideration and discussion between the practitioner team and the designer in order to create an outdoor environment that works well for both children and adults.  There are many ways to incorporate each of them into a successful play garden design, and the right solutions for your setting will be unique to your situation, your children and your team.

A clear awareness of what your want your children to be able to do through your outdoor provision, knowing what messages you want to give to your children through their play outdoors, and attention to the above ten characteristics of an effective outdoor space will enable your team to articulate a clear and strong design brief.  This will in turn lead to the creation of a very special place that makes the most of the outdoor world and is wonderful to be in, because it truly meets the needs of young children for being, playing and learning.

Summary points

  • Time spent visioning and reaching a shared sense of purpose before starting to design is time well spent.
  • Draw up a master list of what you want children to be able to do through the outdoor provision.
  • It is important to be aware of the messages you want children to feel and come to believe about themselves when outdoors, so that the environment supports your aims for your children.
  • A good outdoor space has several characteristics that need careful consideration in order to create an outdoor environment that works well for both children and adults.


Jan White is an independent early childhood consultant who works nationally to advocate and support high quality outdoor provision for children from birth to five.  Her book ‘Playing and Learning Outdoors: making provision for high-quality experiences in outdoor environments’ is published by Routledge (2008).


[1] Shared vision and values for outdoor play in the early years, 2004 (available at www.ltl.org.uk)
[2] Early Years Foundation Stage, Effective practice: outdoor learning, DCSF, 2007