Unstructured outdoor play makes some children passive

"Unstructured outdoor play may lead passive children to become more passive. For that reason, staff should focus more on the social environment on the playground to ensure that all children take part in play", states the researcher Kathrine Bjørgen.



“Varied terrain and a good selection of playground equipment in the outdoor kindergarten environment may bring children greater enjoyment from playing. However, that is not enough for everyone”, observes researcher Kathrine Bjørgen.

She thinks it may be time to address the social environment in the outdoor space. In so doing, she wants to look beyond playground architecture, since a great deal of attention has been devoted to that topic in recent years.

Bjørgen has observed and made video recordings of 24 children in a Norwegian kindergarten. She wanted to learn more about what engenders well-being, involvement and more physical activity among 3–5-year-olds playing outside at kindergarten. She found huge differences from one child to the next when they play outdoors.

Some keep to themselves

Unstructured outdoor play does not automatically lead to more physical activity, no matter how attractive the outdoor area. In fact, she suggests that outdoor play can actually make some children more passive.

“Children with many friends are often very active outdoors. They play with their friends and challenge each other. But those who are not as readily included may actually become more passive during unstructured outdoor play.

Especially in kindergartens with spacious outdoor areas, some children fail to get involved in play with other children when left to their own devices,” she explains.

Must be invited to join in play activities

Someone must invite the passive children to join play activities.

“It is important that staff members encourage and motivate the children to play. I have seen clearly that adults who are actively involved in outdoor play manage to engage many more children. This appears to engender more well-being and a greater sense of security and meaning for the children. Children like to be seen and heard. They need encouragement and validation when they play”, Bjørgen submits.

“That does not mean that the adults should control all outdoor play. The children must decide for themselves what they want to play, and move around as they please.

“It is important to allow time for unstructured play. That being said, staff members can initiate play and encourage children from the sidelines without too much interference.”

The researcher believes it might be prudent for staff to brainstorm in an effort to figure out what they can do during outside play to prevent some children from becoming passive and getting bored.

“That may make outdoor play more meaningful for the personnel, too. Naturally, they are often in the same outdoor space year after year, which makes it easy to fall into
a rut”, she says.

More active on field trips

Bjørgen has also observed the children when they are on field trips. She found that they move more when away from the kindergarten premises. “Other studies have come to the same conclusion”, she adds.

“This is not simply because they walk a greater distance when outside enjoying nature than when on the playground. Nature itself also acts as a catalyst for a greater number and more varied activities than when children play on stationary playground equipment. There is more spontaneity in their play, and it looks like moving around more makes them happier.

Naturally, however, there are major differences between the outdoor environments from one kindergarten to the next”, Bjørgen points out.

More social on field trips

From the social perspective, it also seems as though something happens when the children are on field trips”, the researcher continues.

“The children become a more cohesive unit, and more protective of each other. If they play somewhere in the forest, their play takes place in a more limited area. More children will be invited to take part in group play, reinforcing social relationships.

“It seems as though the children, as a group, gain social momentum from playing outside in nature”, concludes Bjørgen.