It feels like flying through space

Children love physical play outdoors and the sensory experiences that accompany such play. Early childhood educators should support children's good outdoor experiences by maintaining a presence on the playground and taking part in the children's play.



“It feels like flying through space.” In a Norwegian study, this is how a five-year-old boy describes his time on the playground. He is not alone in the joy he takes from the playground. In fact, the study shows that during outdoor play, children get a feeling of freedom as their senses are stimulated. Children need sensory experiences to learn to know their physical limits, so educators should support positive outdoor experiences.


Kathrine Bjørgen, the researcher in charge of the study, confirms that learning to use their senses is an important aspect of child development. Unless their senses are stimulated, children may find it difficult to develop an awareness of their bodies, so they need to learn to know themselves and what their bodies can do.

The great outdoors plays a very important role for children in particular. ‘Children say: “I love to run”, “Jumping makes my legs strong” or “It tickles my tummy”, when describing physical experiences outdoors. Not only do they get physical, but they also get emotional impressions when they play outdoors’, observes Kathrine Bjørgen.


‘The outdoors is an important space for learning since the children are exposed to sensory stimuli that are different from what they can get indoors’, says the researcher. ‘Outdoor space is subject to change in a completely different way than indoor space. It changes with the wind, weather and seasons, day by day, meaning it can continuously be re-explored, affording the children new sensory impressions.

‘The outdoors offers many spontaneous experiences, which are enough for children because they constantly have new experiences. For example, jumping in a mud puddle is a highly sensory experience, which a child may want to experience time and again, even though the activity has no particular purpose’, explains Kathrine Bjørgen.


Adults support children’s excitement about physical outdoor play by maintaining an active presence. Kathrine Bjørgen’s study nevertheless indicates that most children experience the outdoors as a space where the adults are not very active. The children say, for example, ‘No, they (adults, ed.) just chat when they’re outside…’ or ‘No, adults can’t play. They usually just walk around.’

Kathrine Bjørgen believes that it may be a question of tradition when early childhood educators opt not to take part in outdoor play as much as in indoor play.

‘Children say “It tickles my tummy” when they try to describe physical outdoor experiences.’

‘One can easily take part simply by being attentive, asking questions and making comments without joining in the play directly. Traditionally, when the children were outside, they were allowed to play what they wanted to, taking a break from the adults. For many, the outdoors has been synonymous with unstructured play, that is, play not run by the adults. That really is too bad, because the children love it when the adults join in’, she adds.

‘When adults are with them and take part in the children’s play, the children get a better sense of what their bodies can actually do. To tap the pedagogical potential of the outdoors, we need to re-think the idea that outdoor play is children’s adult-free zone’,  the researcher points out.


‘Getting involved is not the same as the educators taking over control of the children’s outdoor play. It is more a question of whether they should support the children as the little ones explore the limits of what their bodies can do, for example, by providing verbal encouragement for the children to try new physical challenges and by showing them new ways to play and move, or with an approving smile’, expounds Kathrine Bjørgen:

‘It is important that adults get involved, and that they show their pleasure and excitement about what the children find to do. If the adult balances on rocks and climbs along with a child, the child feels inspired, developing a positive self-image of her body and of physical activity. This is profoundly important since children also learn by watching what adults do. Adults are role models for children, and that also applies when they fail to participate in play directly, a fact that is important to bear in mind’, concludes the researcher.