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Toddlers Outdoors – Liam explores the garden

13 month old Liam plays and explores in the garden. Mum sits close by, watching quietly as he explores his surroundings and giving him help when he needs it.

Good for looking at

  • Movement
  • Senses
  • Physical development
  • Cognitive development
  • Schemas
  • Learning outdoors
  • Play with loose parts
  • Exploring from a secure base
  • Effective adult support
  • Parents

Prompts for developing practice


Effective outdoor provision requires an ethos and vision, underpinned by a strong rationale, that toddlers must have access to outdoor environments for plenty of time each day, every day of the year. How can you work towards this in your setting? What issues would need to be addressed in a policy to help bring this vision about?

As we can see with Liam, one of the very first steps in making good use of the outdoors is to have suitable clothing to keep both children and adults comfortable and safe in the different weather conditions we have through the year. Good clothing protects without getting in the way of what children want to do. This might be all-in-one suits or dungarees with jackets (better for warmer weather) – it makes a big difference to use those that make nappy changing easier! How can the setting ensure that appropriate clothing is always available and easy to use?


View the film several times to consider the endless richness of simple things like grass, gravel, conkers and water in Liam’s outdoor spaces. Analyse what Liam makes use of in each of his outdoor environments and what these features and materials offer him for well-being, thinking and development. Extend this discussion to consider what your outdoor space could provide to offer a developmentally appropriate outdoor environment for toddlers.

Safety is of course of paramount importance, so your discussions should also consider how Liam’s Mum has made sure that he is kept safe and is learning how to keep himself safe – and how this would happen in group provision.


Adults need a deep understanding of the role of movement in the lives of toddlers. 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 1 year-olds.

For toddlers to get the most from being outdoors, they need the close accompaniment of adults with a high commitment to the value of the outdoors who take great pleasure in being outdoors with them, and who see all weather as ‘good’ weather! Discuss the various ways that the adults in this film show these commitments and skills.


Dirt and germs as a health concern is a difficult issue which has to be carefully discussed within the team and with parents, so that adults are all comfortable with the setting’s practice. How do we enable toddlers to explore in a safe enough way? Is ‘dirt’ okay for toddlers and where is the line?

Liam clearly benefits from being able to walk around outdoors in bare feet. He also falls over often, risking scrapes and cuts – but this is part of his learning and development. How do we balance our fear of bumps and bruises with the developmental value of toddler exploration outdoors?

Things to notice and understand

The role of movement

Watching Liam at work in the familiar space of his garden, with the nearby emotional base of an attentive and important person who he knows is taking care of his safety, we can see much about how he uses his whole body and movement to find out about his world, see how things work in this world, and feel how he relates to it.

He is also getting a great deal of work done on developing his balance, loco-motor skills, coordination, strength and control. And in doing this he is also developing an awareness of his own body and a sense of himself in space; gaining pleasure and mental stimulation from movement; feeling good in his body and building a sense of being ‘me’.

Use of the body develops the brain in many other ways, and research shows that perceptive and cognitive growth is highly dependent on use of the body and movement in space [Hannaford 1995]. For young children movement is thinking, and they do not think well without action and movement. All the children in this film show us aspects of the vital role that movement has for toddlers and that it is a very important part of life throughout this year.

Liam knows what this space offers him for using his body, and each day he can revisit and repeat these experiences. Through this daily access his abilities develop a little every day, so that he can use the same interesting and opportunity-filled environment slightly differently each time – and keep referring to his safe base both to check that he will be safe and to share his delight in what he can do.

The special nature of the outdoors

Watching the incredibly rich experiences Liam has with his Mum in the garden, the park and the small lane behind their house, it is clear that the outdoors offers many things that add greatly to what the indoors can offer – it is a very different place for children to be in. It’s a very worthwhile exercise to analyse the special nature of the outdoors. It is complex and multi layered and it takes time to fully appreciate; but young children are very tuned into these differences.

Liam’s Mum has experienced the value of taking him outside every single day as part of their routine – he thrives on these experiences and his well-being is served also by his certainty that he will be able to go outside whatever the weather or time of year.

She also gains by having time with Liam where he is fully engaged, enlivened and responsive to her, which is fulfilling for both of them and helping to deepen the relationship they have with each other. Every day is different and new, and all weather is good for toddler exploration, discovery, experience and development.

During this year, children are developing at such a rapid rate that they cannot wait through the winter for ‘good weather’ – they need the richness of this environment every day of their lives.

What matters to toddlers: schemas

Young children have some very important questions that they constantly seek to explore, and like the scientists that they so clearly are, they ask their questions at every possible opportunity, construct ‘theories’ based on the evidence they have gathered, and seek to test these theories many times and in lots of ways. Through this process, they are constantly constructing their abilities to perceive and their abilities to think, as well as their ideas and theories about how things are in the world.

Toddlers, and Liam is a very good example, seem to be driven by such big questions as ‘what is in the world?’, ‘how does it work?’, ‘what does it do to me?’ and ‘how do I fit in?’, and they do this through a great deal of ‘object play’ and embodied exploration. It is very important that adults supporting toddlers are tuned into the questions they need to explore. Not only does this help cognitive development in the best way; it also strongly supports their emotional well-being and reduces frustration and conflict.

A fascination with holes and gaps is very common in 1 year-olds, and they are intensely aware of miniscule things. This is a particularly enjoyable aspect of sharing explorations with children of this age: they notice things adults have long forgotten and ceased to look at. We must find the time to allow ourselves to be drawn in, to share in the detail and wonder of the tiny side of the world.

Liam’s interest in holes may also be connected to his on-going passion for exploring the idea of ‘in and out’. In and out is a pervasive element of the physical world and provides a foundation for mathematical and scientific ideas – as well as having relevance to the social and emotional world of human relationships.

The right stuff

The outdoor environments that Liam has daily access to contain just the right materials to best support his thinking and development. They are part of the real world, so they are of great interest to him. They are highly sensory, providing stimulation for several senses at once. They are open-ended, non-prescribed and abundant, so he can do what he wants with them.

We provide materials like these indoors, such as sand and water, as they are very effective as learning tools, but toddlers are then severely constrained in the ways they can use them. In the outdoors they can be accessed in much richer ways, they can be:

  • picked, gathered, collected and piled up;
  • moved around from one place to another;
  • dipped and dropped, rolled and dumped;
  • mixed and stirred; they can be sat in and stood on;
  • felt and experienced with the whole body;
  • present in great quantities;
  • they change with the weather and the season and they are there every day to come back to over and over again.

Natural materials are the richest source of interest and possibility for young children outdoors, they are where they belong and where they have the most to offer by interacting with all the other things in this environment.

Adult support and interaction

At this time of his life, he relies on 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 Liam checks frequently with his safe base that what he is doing will not cause him harm – this is an inbuilt survival strategy that adults can make good use of!

As well as providing a strong safe base for Liam’s well-being and exploration, the adult in this sequence is providing just the right style and amount of support and interaction. She knows Liam very well and is very aware of what interests him, what he wants to do and how he needs to do it. She supports him from a distance that keeps him secure but that gives him lots of room to follow his own ideas.

Most importantly for this age group, she very consciously goes at his pace, allowing him enough time to work through whatever it is that occupies him, and to return to these on a daily basis until he is ready to move on. This approach is nicely captured in the term ‘slowliness’, and allowing toddlers to take their time is an important element of appropriate practice. The outdoor world is so full of interest and opportunity for toddlers, and they have so much that they need to be working on for themselves that they must not be hurried, time-limited or moved on in their learning too quickly.

“The more slowly trees grow at first, the sounder they are at the core, and I think the same is true of human beings.”