Jan White Natural Play

Natural Play, Natural Growth, in the Early Years

Words Matter – opening up a needed debate?


Poking and pondering...

I remember a conversation with Marjorie Ouvry around 10 years ago, about whether we should be saying Outdoor Play or Outdoor Learning.  We agreed on outdoor play, because of our beliefs that learning happens through children’s own play, when it has meaning to them.  However, I also felt at the time that it was fine to use whichever term helped to create change in the quantity of time and quality of experience children got outside in their early years settings.  If the practitioners, or indeed the local authority staff, needed to think of it as ‘learning’ (being an activity that carried more meaning and motivation for them), then it would be most effective to use that more valued idea.

In the last couple of years though, I’ve noticed increasing use of the term Outdoor Learning and have become uncomfortable about its ascendancy.  Words matter: as words are tools for thinking, the particular words we use in ourheads (self talk) and to communicate with others (think together) influence the way we think – and have an impact on what we then do.  I feel it’s time to open up a debate about the language we are using to think about and develop our practice outdoors.

My proposition is that what we really mean (or should mean in the UK with our traditions for nursery education from the British Nursery School) is Learning Outdoors, not Outdoor Learning.  My reasoning is this:

Firstly, I trained in the 1980’s as a teacher in Science and Outdoor Education.  When you just read the term ‘Outdoor Education’ here, such things as abseiling, creek-walking, canoeing, hiking, sailing etc. probably came to mind – actually that is Outdoor Pursuits.  Outdoor Education should mean ‘education in and through the outdoors’ in its widest sense (education about the outdoors is embedded into all experiences, as well as being focused upon at times).  Outdoor Education tends to mean a particular set of experiences that are indeed deeply meaningful and transformational for the participant, but it does not tend to mean learning in the bigger and wider sense of  ‘in and through’ being outdoors.  I think Outdoor Learning tends to set up a mind-frame, like Outdoor Education, of a set of experiences in the outdoors – just as ‘Forest School’ does (indeed another debate to be had is the almost synonymous use in many people’s heads of Outdoor Learning and Forest Schools, and perhaps this partly explains that muddling!)

Manipulating an idea to think it through

Secondly, in the UK we have a foundational tradition of children being, playing and learning through play in the outdoors (as well as indoors) from our wonderful (and admired at the time by many other countries) Nursery Schools heritage – which seems to be strangely forgotten in the new discourse around Forest Schools.  I know that what I believe in, advocate and work to realise is learning, across the whole child and the whole curriculum (whether emanating from inside the child or from external guidance documents) through capturing and harnessing what being outdoors does for and to the child – not a subset of experiences.  My own life’s experiences in teaching have shown me again and again that children learn well outdoors, whatever the learning experience is.  The learning is usually more relevant, more motivational and deeper when it happens IN the outdoors.  I think this is better described by Learning Outdoors.

Finally, as an example of how words shape thinking and understanding (and possibly jeopardise good progress), take ‘Outdoor Classroom’.  I’m really quite alarmed by the recent explosion in this concept – as being (especially in schools) a shelter big enough to seat the whole class together, so that the teacher can lead a lesson.  This ‘classroom’ is dangerously close to being the box of the indoor classroom placed outside. It may not have physical walls, but I’d suggest that the dynamics, power balance, freedom and learning processes (things people unanimously identify as key features of the special nature of outdoors) change little from teaching and learning indoors!  My feeling is that this is a serious red herring for real progress in children’s learning experiences.  The outdoors IS the classroom.  Its ceiling is the sky, the views, the rain, the sun, the wind and so on and on.  It’s as big as the space the children have access to and can see beyond the boundaries.  And it is a rich and open as nature and the adults have made it.

The wonderful and expansive learning place of outdoors

See how the words we use influence how we think, and how we share our thinking?  So, the Masters programme I’m designing is called ‘Learning Outdoors in Early Childhood’.  Perhaps it should be ‘Being, Playing and Learning Outdoors in Early Childhood’.  If we are going to develop the use of the outdoors as a deep and effective place for children’s being, playing and learning, we need the word-tools to think about and discuss what it needs to be like so as to work best at helping children to thrive and grow. 

What do you think?

Thanks to Robin Hood bilingual outdoor kindergarten in Berlin for the beautiful experience of being outdoors with toddlers, as captured in these images.


20 thoughts on “Words Matter – opening up a needed debate?

  1. Lots of food for thought here & I am guilty of using several of those terms myself, especially Outdoor Learning, tho’ I’m not sure that transversing the words makes a big difference. (I now call our woodland trips or any outdoor trip our ‘Scandinavian Days’) I do however agree that nursery schools have to lead the way in outdoor play, we have to shout about it, share our good practice & try to enthuse as many others as we can. Ultimately we need to get back to our roots of why we go outside with young children & promote it as the best practice for all. Thanks for this thoughtful piece, Kierna

    • Hi Kierna. I think your phrase ‘why we go outside with young children’ hits the nail on the head. I may be nit-picking about the words (but obviously I think it’s important to be aware of their influence) but there are some tricky other influences about, such as some of the items appearing for ‘outdoor learning’ from the big resources companies. We need to know why we’re doing it in order to try to get being outdoors the best it could be for the children.

  2. I agree. While language and terminology is important and it’s interesting to see people jumping on the outdoor learning gravy train, at the end of the day the kids experiences are largely determined by the mindset of the staff.

  3. I’m with you on this Jan. I think we’ve both ranted about this in the past. I originally called myself an “outdoor learning consultant” to ensure I was not confused with environmental education or outdoor education consultants. But suddenly everyone was using the term!

    Because of the use of the term “outdoor learning” in Scotland I’m sticking with my title at the moment because it explains clearly what my specialism is, here north of the border. I do always make it clear in presentations and workshops that outdoor learning is… learning outdoors. But then again, I always argued the same for outdoor education, that it’s education outdoors!

    I think these terms will always be up for debate. That’s good. We need to talk about why learning outside is special and unique. We need to clarify our thoughts, actions and deeds to develop our understanding of what we do outside and why. We need to remember that it’s all about giving children the best possible education we can. Thanks for raising the debate!

    • Thanks Juliet – debate is what I want to provoke. At the BECERA conference this week this language issue came up a few times (and it’s clear there is muddlement…) – and prompted me to try to explain my thinking better than I was doing. I’m particularly concerned at the moment by the thinking/understanding behind the new ‘outdoor learning’ products coming out from several big resource companies – indoor thinking being transplanted outside. What is Outdoor Learning/Learning Outdoors?

  4. A thoughtful post Jan, thank you for sharing. I couldn’t agree more ……outdoor classrooms have no walls.The sky is the ceiling, the flowers are our sisters, the trees are our friends. And the terminology I would be more inclined to use would be “learning outdoors” when describing the classes I teach. We run our nature classes in forest settings, woodlands and occasionally down at the beach. We provide a natural space where children can run, play, dance, sing, squeal, shout or be silent in the chosen outdoor environment. They stand, kneel or crouch to paint or create the creatures, birds, trees, flowers and grasses which are all around us.

    All of our senses are stimulated: the sight and sounds of the chattering squirrels as they jump from tree to tree; clouds floating overhead; sun filtering through the trees; heat from spaces in full sun; coolness in the shade; the sprinkle of rain; the texture of stones, twigs, trees, grass, earth. The sessions flow from what happens around us each day. We are all totally absorbed in the present moment.I believe that all children should be given the opportunity to discover and explore the natural world and the early years are fundamentally the most important. What I have witnessed over the last few years is very encouraging.and fills me with hope for the future for our children and our beautiful planet. Here’s to getting more children (and adults) outdoors,experiencing the awe and wonder of the natural world, and the innumerable benefits it offers not just our children but the educators and Mother Earth.

    • Thanks Marghanita – what you so beautifully describe – ‘the sessions flow from what happens… we are all totally absorbed in the present moment’ – just doesn’t happen inside the paradigm of the ‘classroom’. Not only is it lacking in sensation and stimuli (we bring stuff in to try to help with this), most adults don’t work in this way – especially as children get older. As we work towards good learning outdoors, we must also come OUT of the classroom. I too am an optimist (more so as get older) – but one who wants to keep prodding and questioning and rattling so it goes the best way for the children. Imagine if we managed to steal the outdoors from children in our efforts to do outdoor learning! Are you in BC – I have lots of close family there?

  5. Jan, this is so apt and struck a real chord with so many issues I come across. Words matter SO much, there should be thought connected with words (rather than people using phrases lightly). Words should be chosen carefully because they convey intention and layers of meaning. And we should challenge and provoke debate around the use of phrases to describe what happens outside.

    I’m also frightened by how often I’ve come across schools using the term “outdoor classroom” to mean exactly what you’ve talked about above – a set of 30 seats undercover which repliacte a boxed in place to gather an entire class of children to be led by an adult. That concept can then lead to staff struggling to see how a school field, playground, patio, wood or even a raised bed of plants can be used as an inspirational space for learning and discovery.

    thanks for raising the debate

    • So, one of the challenges seems to be getting teachers out of the classroom, rather than just getting outside! I’ve realised that a crucial thing to do early in training is to examine the different and special nature of the outdoors – perhaps we also need to revisit this point several times during the process too, to understand how learning outdoors is different from learning indoors? Let’s spread the debate!

  6. Hi Jan, yes, I’m based in the Okanagan, BC. I moved from Scotland to BC almost seven years ago. Truly an outdoor paradise which sadly is not being fully appreciated or explored as much as it could. However, I am very optimistic about the future. I just recently interviewed Ricahrd Louv about the positive changes in the movement to connect children with nature. (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QWugZy_JIsk&feature=related).

    There are great changes taking place but there is still a lot to do. I totally agree with you Jan that we need to take the children OUTDOORS in order for them to have a true connection with the nature world. All my classes are held outdoors in all weather. However, I do occasionally take nature into schools which helps them to understand certain aspects of the natural world. Bringing nature into the classroom has it’s benefits but it does not compare to the benefits the child would experience from learning and playing outdoors in nature.Learning outdoors is an entirely different experience. You cannot feel the rain on your face or the wind in your hair or the birds singing. These experiences are impossible to replicate in an indoor environment. It’s that very connection with Mother Earth that is the vital ingredient.It allows children to understand their place in the world. It feeds the mind, body and spirit. My whole concept of learning outdoors is to nurture the WHOLE child (adults). I believe this can only be achieved when outdoors in nature. We are NATURE- there is no separation.

    Thank you so much for the work you are doing Jan – here’s to getting more children and adults learning OUTDOORS!!! http://www.letsgooutsiderevolution.com

    • Hi Marganita – small world: my parents are in Salmon Arm. I’m also connected into the Children and Nature Movement and the Nature Action Collaborative for Children (World Forum). Do you know about International Mud Day? I’ll be posting about it soon as we’ve been doing all sorts towards it (29th June) – soilearth/mud is one of my big childhood passions that has stayed with me through my life!

  7. I really like the term learning outdoors, but I’ve also heard people say there shouldn’t be a term at all – indoors, outdoors: it’s all learning. Few people would call themselves proponents or enthusiasts of “indoor learning”!

    I think people are genuinely wanting to get outdoors more by getting an outdoor classroom. The problem is that these spaces rarely suit everyone. Perhaps the key is to encourage practitioners to find the wonderful nooks and crannies they already have in their grounds as well as give them ideas on how to set up simple shelters and areas that make children and staff feel happy to be outside.

    Thanks for sharing!


    • Thanks Mandy. The thing is that learning outdoors is so different to learning indoors – not just the space/stimuli but the way the learning can happen. What I’m anxious to see is that this is what gets developed well. The dominant paradigm is indoor/classroom learning (so I suppose that’s why we don’t need to give it its own name) – and we need helpful words to develop a new paradigm: we already have creative learning and child-led learning taking us down a good path. You are so right about the shelter and comfort – if practitioners are not physically and emotionally comfortable out there they can’t embrace it, and nor can the children. Usually there is so much potential that the teachers just need a little help to see. I like the look of your work with families – I imagine you know about Nature Nurture also in Aberdeen?

  8. Wonderful post and comments. Spot on in terms of focusing on words that really do matter in the current zeitgeist. For example the consideration of stimuli and the portability of the internal world of the adult. We need definition, us humans, yet it can quickly become shorthand and grow in-built assumptions if not challenged regularly, as you’ve done so well in this article. Juliet is wise in saying these terms will always need debate. So much of this is what I have struggled with in the phd research, particularly in terms of accurately defining what really goes on in practice, effective or otherwise. It has become quite an obsession so I’m grateful to read your informed responses and thoughts. I keep putting the word ‘play’ and ‘being’ or ‘growing’ back into my text, considering whether learning needs to be in there at all, or what is meant by that, and then worrying how wordy it all becomes! Or worrying that a focus on ‘being’ for example may not be taken seriously by those more concerned with education etc. I settled on focusing on interactions and relationship and how these are negotiated moment-to-moment, therefore learning is just one of the things going on for adults, children and the rest of the world and the whole thing is an ecological process. I forget who called it ‘interactional synchrony’. A definition that sounds a world away from ‘outdoor classroom’ for example. Also, the point you make about the legacy of nursery schools in the UK and how that is somehow forgotten in current excitement in Forest Schools is a good one. There is value in understanding past developments (and more recent regressions!). I have been on a voyage of discovery in finding out the history of child-centred practice here in the UK, e.g in the 1960s, having innocently assumed that Italy and Scandinavia were the pioneers. Showing my age there : ) Thanks Jan for a wonderful post.

    • Hi Mel. Thanks so much for the comments – we do seem to have got the ball rolling. It’s been nagging at me for some time, and I do feel very much that words shape our thinking – that is after all what they are for. But also that they are often very value-based, so finding the right ones to use in a development role can also be important! You’ve opened up another area that I’ve thought for a long time we need to unpick – what do we in this country actually mean by ‘learning’? My opinion is that we usually mean ‘thinking’ and that would be a much more helpful and constructive word to use – maybe thinking is the verb and learning is the outcome? By the way, I’m using ‘being’ more and more, and the New Zealand and Australian ECE framworks have being at their core (New Oz framework is called ‘Being, Belonging, Becoming’ – how good is that!). Lastly, some Swedes told me that their inspiration came from our Nursery/Infant tradition…

  9. Hi and thanks, Jan for an obviously heart-felt and thought provoking post, as well as the great comments
    I am a playworker. Therefore I don’t consider myself to be an educationalist. (Then again, I can hear my late Dad saying quietly, Education is from the Latin to draw out from, and doesn’t mean to fill up with)
    I am a Forest School Leader. But I really wish we didn’t have the box that seems to come with that name
    While I work away at trying to set up a county-wide network of good outdoor play opportunities for as many children as possible, I struggle with the words too. They are important. But for me, more important is to set it up, stand well back and watch it happen, because in the process of ‘it happening’ we have learning.
    To process… To lead forward… To analyse, to digest, to recapitulate, to move forward…

    • Thanks for this comment Mark. Your approach is good early years practice: set it up, stand well back, and watch – very carefully and knowledgeably – what happens. Only then can you know how to respond. I’ve always found there is a very grey boundary between Playwork and good ECE, and have constantly been inspired and informed by playwork thinking and debate. When educators are in woodlands, this seems to be more obvious and child-led learning is more likely to take place. My big hope with the way forest school has captured imaginations, is that this personal experience will then seep into the way the educators do outdoor play/learning in their own settings. This I feel could be the greatest outcome of the FS movement – that children can experience and live their daily learning-lives in this way. I’m trying to stay optimistic, because it MUST be happening. But I keep coming across examples where it’s not… So, we need to press on and DO, and think lots along the way!
      I’m interested to know where you are working?

      • I’d hope that the boundary between playwork and any other child setting would be more colourful than grey! The overlap and hinterland is usually the place where really fertile stuff happens.
        As Wendy Russell commented about your post when I forwarded it, … Lets have a debate about natural play… She pointed me towards the site I’ve copied below, and her comments together with Tim Gills and JulietvRobertosns make for really interesting reading.
        I too am optimistic that there are (must be) enough forest school settings and teachers who ‘get’ play… So yes we must do, and think and share…
        And the answer is South Wales, the Vale of Glamorgan specifically. I call myself a playworker, am a trainer, and was trained by and shadowed Gordon Woodall. I am only just now starting to put money where mouth is and set things in motion.
        The things being Family Fun in the Forest, Forest School for Flying Start family centres, FS for children on autistic spectrum, an attempt to create a shareable bank of stuff for outdoor play people,( and the dream… A mobile tinkering toolshed for kids to hammer and smash, and draw and make….)
        Here’s the link Wendy gave me:
        Best wishes, and let’s keep the talk talking and the do doing!

      • Thanks Mark: your comment about grey made me smile – and I’ve been ill for nearly 3 weeks, so thanks for that! Probably I meant not-very-visible (in normal light anyway). I have a fascination for edge/inbetween-places (being also very much the places of my childhood play) and have just read the excellent Edgelands book – well recommended.
        Re Wendy’s comment about natural play – totally agree. Did you take a look at my page on this? The thinking I’m working on with this is that it’s about the child’s own internal (natural) ‘curriculum’ (akin to David Sobel’s ‘authentic’ education), aided deeply by personal, intimate, everyday contact with everyday nature.
        Your dream is fantastic – I want to know when you get it going!!

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