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Babies Outdoors – Ko plays in the park

Ko is nine months old, his home language is Japanese and his parents also speak english. He is enjoying spending time in the park with his mum. He explores physically and stimulates his senses. His vision and physical skills are developed in the rich outdoor environment.

Good for looking at

  • Physical development
  • Physical play
  • Vision
  • Sensory development
  • Vestibular sense
  • Proprioception
  • Parents
  • Tuning in


  • Crawling babies need a variety of surfaces to provide different tactile experiences and on which to develop movement skills, and plenty of stimulus for crawling. Babies around Ko’s age also need surfaces for pulling upright and good support while standing.
    Use the film of Ko, Lucas and Dexter to help review your current outdoor provision to see how well these stages are supported and to consider how this could be enhanced.
  • In order for the world beyond the nursery to be a routinely and frequently accessed layer of outdoor provision, suitably rich and appropriate places need to be found and they need to be easily used.
    Discuss the film sequences to decide what the important components of these two elements are and how this could be harnessed in your setting.


  • Adults need a deep understanding of the role of movement in the lives of babies.
    Watch the sequences of each child several times focusing on what they are doing with their body and what they seem to be getting from this. By sharing perspectives and discussion, build up a picture of the role of movement and action in the well-being, thinking and development of babies.
  • Adults working with this age group must have a large repertoire of movement games, action rhymes and songs, both traditional and popular, that can be drawn on spontaneously, whenever the right moment arises.
    How can this be supported for play outside with babies?

Ko 9 months: Things to notice and understand

The special nature of the outdoors

“Children under two belong outside” [Jim Greenman, 1988: 182]

Ko’s family does not have a garden, so taking him outdoors everyday is very important and the park provides a wonderfully rich environment that has lots of potential to meet his needs. It gives him the space and freedom he needs to follow his deep drives for movement. It also inspires him with all the right kinds of provocations and invitations – he finds lots that is of interest and that matches his internal motivations. The film of Ko shows clearly how the special nature of the outdoors adds to and compliments the opportunities available indoors. It should be seen as one of the two halves of the whole learning environment; and we must make the most of its potential to provide babies with experiences not possible indoors. Here, Ko is able to spend lots of time experiencing the effects of the world on his body. The opportunity to move in an unobstructed space, to physically interact with his Mum, to interact with nature and natural materials, and to watch people and how they move are just a few of the huge range of experiences that the outdoors is so good at providing. This is a powerful environment for Ko to be in; one in which all developmental domains are supported in an holistic and harmonious way.

Chance and serendipity are strengths of the outdoor environment, especially when nature is present. Interesting things happen all the time outdoors. Every day is different and brings new possibilities for Ko’s Mum to find to share with him. But, because they come back daily, he also has a familiar, stable environment where he can return to previous enquiries and pleasures again and again, revisiting and repeating experiences in a way that builds up his ideas about how things are and how they behave. When the outdoor space is just an expanse of flat rubber surfacing, practitioners must set out resources every single day. This can be quite unsettling for young children – remember how it feels when you drive
into a city you have never been to before, or what it is like when the supermarket has rearranged it shelves! When the richness of the environment comes mostly from the landscape, weather, natural world and people, as in places like the
park, children find what they need from an environment that they can come to know well. This provides part of the safe base that allows their exploratory drive to flourish. Making the most of the opportunities that come up ‘by chance’ in the outdoors is one of the pleasures of working with babies; but it needs attentive, knowledgeable and alert practitioners and an open, flexible routine and planning system. Adults working with babies need to be ready and able to draw on resources, ideas, games and songs that respond to the moment or motivation.

Ko experiences a gentle transition to wakefulness in the presence of the secure base provided by his key adult. He looks relaxed and enlivened in this film: he clearly loves being outside. The natural world has the remarkable ability to make us feel calm and stimulated at the same time. Because we evolved in natural, outdoor places, nature modulates the human mind into an alert, ready and interested state [Kahn & Kellert, 2002]. Nature brings lots of richness to this outdoor space, in terms of the variety of spaces available (from open areas to nooks and crannies), the surfaces to move on (such as pathways, soft grass and slopes) and materials to interact with (for example daisies and wood). The weather also brings a great deal of sensation, effect and interest, and this is a compelling reason to ensure that babies have plenty of time outdoors every day throughout the year, as required by the Early years Foundation Stage in England [DCSF, 2008: PiP card 3:3]. All this provides a ‘generous’ environment which is very responsive to the individual ‘unique’ child [White, 2011] and therefore a place that differentiates well, accommodating a wide range of personalities, abilities and interests. Here we can really see the value of thinking of outdoor provision that is appropriate for babies as a ‘nursery garden’ rather than a playground. A small area of rubber-covered, risk-averse surface is a very poor space by comparison for the developmental needs of any baby through their first year.

“If we don’t capture the potential of the outdoors, we are missing the point – and missing the huge capacity of the outdoors to help young children to thrive and grow, adding greatly to what the indoors can do.”

[Jan White, 2009b]

Natural light and the higher oxygen levels outside contribute too to Ko’s feelings of well-being and alertness. Sunlight stimulates production of serotonin in the brain, making us feel happy, and the blue wavelengths in it modulate the sleep-wake cycle, helping us to sleep well at night and stay alert in the daytime – and helping babies move towards regular sleep patterns. Of particular importance at the moment is the role of sunlight in helping the body to make enough vitamin D to grow strong bones, since health research shows that children in the UK commonly have suboptimal levels, with increasing prevalence of disorders linked to its deficiency. Low sunlight levels for much of the year (winter and much of spring and autumn, and our commonly cloudy skies at other times) are the reason for the evolution of fair skin in northern countries. For individuals with pigmented skin, exposure time or frequency needs to be increased 2- to 10-fold to get the same vitamin D synthesis as fair skinned individuals, and sunscreen with a SPF of 15 or over blocks more than 99% of dermal synthesis [Pearce & Cheetham, 2010]. The researchers propose that by taking the safe sun message too far, coupled with our increasingly indoor lifestyles, we are exposing children to a different kind of health risk. This suggests that while sun hats and sun protection must be carefully considered to protect the very delicate skin of babies, especially during sunny weather and in the middle of the day through summer, we should also ensure that babies actually get access to sufficient sunlight all through the year (for suitable advice on this issue, contact your local health professionals). We also need to be very attentive to babies’ hydration levels and body temperature – over-dressing them can be as problematic as under-dressing, especially during the early months whilst internal temperature regulation through sweating and shivering is developing.

The role of movement and physicality

Ko loves the boisterous movement games his Mum plays with him, experiencing great pleasure and fun in being rocked, moving vigorously forward and backwards, being thrown, falling through space and being caught. He seems to particularly enjoy the emotional aspects of predictable scary-funny moments, suspense and anticipation, and the relief of being ‘saved’, sharing his feelings through laughter. Taking ourselves to the edge and surviving is an important way of pushing at our boundaries and proving that the world really is a safe and survivable place, which contributes to future resilience in the face of difficulty.

We saw in the notes for Bobby how much this kind of play contributes to the development of balance, body control and coordination through stimulating development of the vestibular (or motion) sense. Much of Bobby and Ko’s active play is also developing a second, fundamentally important, internal sensory system, called proprioception, which leads to body awareness and control. Awareness of our body, a feeling of being in it, knowing where our limbs and ‘edges’ are, and where it is in space are things we take for granted. We don’t need to take up conscious thought (working memory) for all the thousands of ways we position and use our bodies for day-to-day functioning, because as young children we worked very hard to develop our proprioceptive sensory system. Nerve-ending sensors (proprioceptors) in the muscles, joints and tendons become connected to the brain so that we gain the complex ability to sense and control body movement and position. It is this kinaesthetic sense that helps us to know about our body from the inside and that gives us a feeling of being in our body [Sacks, 1985] and the ‘feeling of life itself’ [Jabadao 2005]. Children with a well-developed proprioceptive system have a strong sense of their physical body and hence a firm sense of self, and are able to feel confident in the world. Since this is what we want for all children, it is our responsibility to ensure that the children in our care have lots of access to the movements that develop body sense. Fortunately, because it is so important to life functioning, like vestibular development this is hard-wired in to the drives and behaviour of babies; and the outdoor environment provides plenty of invitation and provocation. Being held and cuddled, being wrapped up; arm-waving, reaching and stretching, batting, grasping and pulling; playing with the hands and pulling at the toes and feet in back play, pushing up in tummy play, rolling and wriggling; crawling, pulling upright, standing and knee-bending all give the resistance and tension work that stimulates nerve and brain development for this sensory system [White, 2008]. Most of what Ko is doing in his play in the park is contributing to this sensory development through pressure and stretching in his body, but the body play and movement games with Mum, including clambering over the perfect baby-climbing-frame of her body, are especially good at feeding the growth of body awareness. The roly-poly, puppy-like play of babies has considerable developmental significance, helping to sculpt the body, the mind and the emotions [Brown, 2009].

“It is time that we recognised that the brain does not learn by itself: the body learns too, and if we are to educate our children properly we must encourage developmental parity between body and brain. Physical education is as important as the teaching of literacy and maths in the early years.”

[Sally Goddard Blythe, TES 7.1.00]

Like tummy play, crawling has been recognised as an important stage for babies as so much anatomical and neurological development is stimulated through it. “Crawling is in itself an integrating function. It provides training for hand and eye coordination at exactly the same visual distance as the child will use some years later when reading and writing. Crawling trains the balance mechanism in a new relationship with gravity. It helps to align the top and sacral sections of the spine in preparation for standing and walking, and combines use of left and right sides and upper and lower sections of the body in coordinated movement. Crawling requires the use of all four limbs coordinated with balance and rhythm, reflecting communication between both hemispheres of the brain.” [Goddard Blythe, 2008: 165-6]. “The infant also gains a huge amount of tactile stimulation both from bearing its own weight… and dragging itself along the ground. These early experiences assist in the internal ‘mapping’ of body awareness… This is important for good coordination later on.” [Goddard Blythe, 2008: 91]. Continuing on from tummy play, crawling is significantly influential in completing the work of opening up the hands from the baby fist to the wonderful tool that can grasp, hold and manipulate objects and operate fingers individually [Wilson, 1998].

Watch Ko crawling closely to see how the two sides of his body are working together – it’s the same alternation as that which adults use in walking, where the arms swing oppositely to the legs (e.g. left arm and right leg forwards with right arm and left leg back). As a cross-lateral movement, crawling activates development of the bridge of nerves connecting the two sides of the brain. This gets both sides of the body working together, including the arms, legs, eyes (binocular vision) and the ears (binaural hearing). With equal stimulation, the senses more fully access the environment and both sides of the body can move in a more integrated way for more efficient action [Hannaford, 1995]. Ko can experience powerful feelings of freedom and agency, stimulated by the space and interesting surface of the grass, supported in his adventurous explorations by the safe island of his key person.

At 9 months, Ko is also ready to work on pulling to a standing position and even to start moving sideways (cruising). Like crawling, this important stage of physical development also lasts for several weeks and raised surfaces at the appropriate height are invaluable in an outdoor space for the first year. The park bench that Ko uses to such excellent effect (see below) is a wonderful stimulus for crawling, is easily grasped for pulling up and is at the perfect height for standing or cruising. From this position, babies can delight in being in an upright position, practise the knee-flexing characteristic of this stage and are able to gain a new perspective on the world, while they slowly build up to taking their first wobbly steps.

Sensory development

Bobby spent a great deal of time gazing at fixed objects and tracking moving ones while she herself was still. While in the pushchair or her mother’s arms she also experienced moving in the landscape, so experiencing visual and motion stimuli simultaneously. But Ko now has the new layer of visual experience that comes with being able to move himself around and at the same time feel himself through these movements. As he crawls, visual information is integrated with the vestibular (motion and balance) and proprioceptive (body awareness) information coming from his body. Crawling also helps link information from both eyes in effective binocular vision [Hannaford, 1995] and supports smooth eye tracking that will allow easy reading later in life. And it stimulates focusing at differing distances (looking down at the ground or hands, and up into long distance views), encouraging accommodation (see the notes on Bobby’s back play).

As Ko can begin to move around the environment, he is really helping the aspect of visual development that gives objects and space a sense of depth and allows us to make sense of what we see as a 3-dimensional space, so that we can move through it and relate to it with ease. This part of the visual cortex in the brain is wired up through lots of experiences of moving in an environment with objects that are both near and far. When we move, we see them slightly differently (as a result of our binocular vision) and things in the foreground appear to move against the background (a phenomenon known as parallax). The outdoors is very good at providing the complex landscape needed for these visual experiences and it is crucial that babies are able and encouraged to move around freely.

Moving around the branch of leaves might seem to be a simple activity of shared attention, but much visual work is also being done on Ko’s ability to see the world of solids, how things relate to each other, the visual mapping of space and how things that change shape, colour and brightness are still the same things! Human vision is a supremely complex system that can interpret many different, interacting and subtle aspects of the world. These incredibly refined capacities need vast amounts of stimulation over many years, starting at birth, to reach the levels that we simply take for granted. Once again, when we look closely with greater knowledge of the fascinating complexities of child development, we realise just how much is happening in everything the child is doing. And our belief and trust that the baby is a driven and competent learner from birth is forced to deepen.

What matters to babies: cognitive development

The natural world provides a vast range of highly sensory and appropriate materials for babies’ experiences and explorations. Ko learns more every time he goes outside, building up his knowledge and understanding of his world through the bodily interactions he has with it and the internal sensations these interactions give rise to. Because she knows him so well, his Mum can introduce him to new possibilities that match to his interests. As each of his sensory systems develops through experience they become more refined and the more his mind is able to make sense of his world. Perceptions give rise to interpretations in the mind: so skilled are we as adults that we are unaware of just how remarkably complex these skills are and how much experience is needed for them to become advanced and unconscious.

Now that he is crawling, his body is in a phase of joining these senses up (integration) so that they work together and help each other. “Crawling acts as an integrating experience in combining the use of several systems involved in motor control: balance, proprioception, vision and cooperative use of the two sides of the body (bilateral integration) which reflect active use of the two sides of the brain” [Goddard Blythe, 2008: 91]. His brain is very busy linking up the different streams of sensory input – how things look, feel, sound and otherwise impact on him – so that it is able to build more complex pictures and interpretive abilities. Experiences that are repeated many times lay down connected nerve networks (mental maps or memory) that actually create the architecture of the brain for learning – the neurological structures that allow us to perceive, interpret, imagine and think [Damasio, 1999]. These ‘maps’ (analogous to Piaget’s schemas) in the mind can be used again and again to make sense of new experiences, but they are constantly remoulded in the light of input from new evidence. This is why babies need to think slowly, to repeat things an enormous amount, and to follow what interests them – their brains have their own agenda! The baby’s brain is working so hard on making these nerve connections with the rest of the body and within the brain itself that it’s not surprising they need so much sleep – the experiences the infant has while they are awake need plenty of processing time to physiologically build these connections, and it is now understood that this happens during sleep [Karmiloff-Smith, 2010].

The right stuff: materials and resources

It is really interesting to watch Ko making use of the bench in the park. Notice just how much he is getting out of this everyday object. To adults this is simply a place to sit, relax and reflect. But for a baby of this age, it is just the right height to pull himself to standing and perfect for holding on to as he takes in the exciting new perspective of being upright. Providing the balance point that he needs, it allows a hand to be released for exploration and gesture, and a pleasant and interestingly tactile surface. It is full of interesting places, both underneath and on the seat, with a variety of shapes and surfaces to explore, especially the gaps between the solid shapes. Like many babies and toddlers he notices these holes and gaps and is drawn to investigate them (if he was a little older, he might be quite compelled to post things through these holes). The views through the gaps with things coming in and out of sight, and playing hide and seek with Mum both help to develop his growing understanding of object permanence (it is likely to be easier to grasp this idea with his most important person: surely she is still there?). Not only is the bench at the ideal height, it is a good width for Ko to begin to take steps along the bench and enter the exciting world of upright locomotion. The bench offers lots of potential for Ko that perfectly suits his level of development.

This sequence illustrates the very useful concept of ‘affordance’ [Heft, 1998], which has been well developed in the field of Playwork [Brown, 2003]. The child looks at a space, feature, material or object through the perspective of, ‘what can I do here?’ or ‘what can I do with this?’ In this example, the bench affords very different things to adult and child – and often children see many more possibilities than the constrained ideas that adults have developed! As the child develops and grows, so they can do different things with this same resource or feature. This apparently simple object has great affordance for Ko. Such a feature has high play value for babies, but its potential affordance will be lost if the value of what they are doing in not well understood by adults.

Seating itself is an important thing to consider in any outdoor environment designed for babies. It provides a comfortable place for an adult to sit with a baby so as to gently take in and enjoy the outdoor world together. Adults are also best placed to be attentive, engaged and available to lying, sitting, crawling and standing babies when they are comfortably sitting down. A sitting position brings the adult’s face to the right height, offering the presence of the safe base that adults need to provide and being nicely available for the infant to return to for a moment’s comfort and restoration. Having several sheltered and comfortable seats that capture the morning sun or are in a wind-free corner, and are positioned with plenty to look at or near to where older children want to play, offers choice for the time of day or year and gives plenty of interest to share. A climber-covered swing-seat is the perfect place to enjoy being outdoors with a baby [White, 2010c].

Personal and social development; adult support and interaction

The close relationship Ko has with his Mum is vital for his obvious well-being and his ability to make good use of being outdoors. At this time of his life, he needs adults to keep him safe, but although popular opinion has it that children of this age have no sense of danger, it is apparent that Ko checks frequently that the person he relies on is paying attention to him and will ensure that what he is doing will not cause him harm – this is an inbuilt survival strategy that adults can make use of as the baby starts to get around by himself. Ko needs to know at all times that he is safe and by staying close to the ‘safe base’ his mother is providing by her attentive presence, his exploratory drive can come into play. If he is not sure of this attention, he will not feel relaxed enough to explore. As part of this fundamental drive for survival, he is also closely attuned to the tones in her voice and the cues in her body language. Practitioners working in settings with babies have to be aware of these subtle, often subconscious messages, and this is strongly influenced by how they feel about being outdoors in this place and how they feel about being outside with such young children. It is vital for adults working with babies to feel emotionally and physically comfortable in the outdoor environment and this is something that teams should discuss as openly as possible [White, 2010b] so that issues can be effectively acted upon, to everyone’s advantage.

Ko is interested in his emerging ability to pull to standing, and the enthusiastic reaction from his Mum encourages him to do it again. The attitudes of his key adults to his attempts to try something new have a big influence on his actions
– positive reaction will convince him to have another go; negative reaction will persuade him that it is unwise to try again. Sharing pleasure in new effort and accomplishment provides emotional scaffolding in the zone of proximal development (scaffolding tends to have both physical and emotional components – watch the sequence of Bobby also). Research into motivation and success shows that praise for effort is much more important that praise for achievement, giving the child the internal belief that “if I try I will succeed”, rather than “I can do things because I’m clever/able/talented”, giving the child a ‘growth mindset’ instead of a fixed one regarding their capacities. (On this note, adults saying ‘well done’ might be a more constructive response than ‘clever girl/boy’). Grappling with difficulty and persisting is something that babies and toddlers do all the time – they are amazingly driven and resilient. “It is by supporting children through difficulty, and by encouraging them to focus their attention on the process rather than the outcome of that process, that progress is to be made. Well-intentioned collusion with their desire to escape difficulty only reinforces frailty” [Claxton, 1999].

“Knowing they can cope with difficulties is what makes children seek challenges and overcome further problems… Children learn best from slightly difficult tasks which they have to struggle through.”

[Carol Dweck, cited in Claxton, 1999: 35]

Ko’s Mum bathes him in the sounds, intonation and melody of his home language. Conversation is far more important than the actual words [Chilvers, 2006], but Ko is also beginning to be ready to hear the names of things [Buckley, 2003: 24]. Being outdoors is a strong environment for language generation as there is so much happening to comment on, point out, name and talk about.

Playing movement games with songs with a baby is a very powerful way of relating and supporting development. We have already seen how much these games contribute to sensory growth and emotional development. And when they involve singing, they seem to do even more. Singing together is well-known to be a strong bond-building process in itself, especially with very young children. In addition, synchronising movement has been found by psychologists to be an important element of rapport between two people – moving together is a powerful means of bonding [Quilliam, 1994: 65]. So playful, carefully managed singing-and-action games are truly wonderful things to do with babies, and outdoors they tend to be more energetic and exciting!

Songs also do everything the developing language-user needs. They help children hear the sounds of words; they give words meaning and help to link ideas to their word-symbols; they provide new vocabulary that the child can remember; they are full of rhyme, pattern and rhythm, and most valuable of all, they give the child pleasure and confidence in the use of language. Most importantly, songs with actions link voice with movement so that the brain is activated for learning (by the release of the neurotransmitter dopamine) and the child uses their whole body to make sense and meaning. Music-making appears to be one of the fundamental activities of mankind (no culture so far discovered lacks music [Storr, 1992: 1]) so it must have deep psychological value for all children. The outdoors should be a musical place, where babies can be musical in all sorts of ways with their voice, their body and the environment [Ouvry, 2004].