Creating effective outdoor learning spaces


Nature play and exploring outside is critical to children’s development.

Whether it be inspiring curiosity, developing motor skills, safely undertaking risky play or enjoying a healthy and balanced learning environment, venturing outdoors has many benefits.


Outdoor spaces should therefore be an important consideration for early childhood education and care services.

While breathing in the fresh air, making mud pies, collecting different shaped leaves and navigating an obstacle course can be fun, educational and even enhance the immune system, for many educators, it can feel like there are so many challenges to letting children play outside – injury, illness, and convincing parents and co-workers of the importance.

Today, on Outdoor Classroom Day​ (November 3), let’s step outside and explore ways educators can build an effective outdoor space and incorporate use of the area into everyday learning.

Requirements for outdoor spa​​ce

Trees, natural grass, sand, digging patches and stones all allow children to experience an outdoor environment that supports their learning and development.

To help services plan and understand the requirements for indoor and outdoor space, the Regulatory Authority has developed guidance material on unencumbered indoor and outdoor space.

Approved providers operating centre-based premises or family day care venues must provide at least 7m2 of unencumbered outdoor space per child. This provides children with the opportunity to experience a genuine outdoor environment.

An outdoor space should be:

  • located in an area separated from, and in addition to, any area where indoor play facilities are located
  • outside the exterior walls of the built structure and open to the sky for children to experience the outdoors
  • able to foster children’s understanding and respect for the natural environment and the connections between people, plants, animals and the land
  • designed in a way that facilitates supervision of all areas in the space and does not prohibit the ability to leave the space safely or evacuate in an emergency
  • an environment suitable for a range of experiences that support:
    • gross motor skills such as walking​, running, jumping, climbing, hopping, skipping and sliding
    • manipulative skills such as throwing, catching, kicking, striking and bouncing
    • stability skills such as bending, stretching, swinging, twisting and balancing.

It is important to note that unencumbered outdoor space only relates to spaces used by children for their education and care.

Functional spaces used to support operations are unsuitable for children and must be excluded.

When completing an application for service approval (transcript​), centre-based services must include a floor plan prepared by a building practitioner showing the unencumbered indoor and outdoor spaces to be used at the service and include unencumbered square metre calculations carried out by a building practitioner.

Natural ​​​shade

While it’s important for children to play in the sunlight, there must be consideration for appropriate ultraviolet (UV) protection (regulation 114).

There are many ways outdoor spaces can provide shade including shade sails, large trees and natural surfaces which reflect less UV (e.g. natural grass, soil, bark).

Where possible, services are strongly encouraged to use natural shade options.

Additionally, wearing hats, appropriate protective clothing and sunscreen offer important protection.

For more information, refer to ACECQA’s Sun Protection Policy Guidelines (PDF, 245KB) and sample SunSmart policy and procedures (DOCX, 1.3MB) for early childhood.

Risky play

Access to active play in nature and the outdoors allows for risky play opportunities that are essential for healthy child development.

Educators are encouraged to increase children’s opportunities for self-directed, supervised play outdoors in all settings. As part of their delivery of quality learning experiences, services must have opportunities for children to engage and learn to assess potential risks and make decisions based on their capabilities (Element 3.2.1).

Recent research has found involvement in risky play is associated with higher levels of physical activity, wellbeing in the form of showing fewer signs of distres and deep involvement in activities by children.

An international group of experts reviewed the evidence on the benefits of active play for early development, creating a Position Statement on Active Outdoor Play which noted:

‘Access to active play in nature and outdoors—with its risks— is essential for healthy child development. We recommend increasing children’s opportunities for self-directed play outdoors in all settings.’

To ensure a safe environment for risky play, outdoor spaces must align with National Law and be regularly maintained. As per all activities in a service, children should also be actively supervised at all times.

Some examples of risky play include:

  • climbing – interacting with great heights helps kids face fears and build confidence
  • running, swinging, sliding and riding a bike – moving at rapid speeds can help children understand and use their bodies
  • using tools – helps children build confidence and skills
  • learning with elements such as moving water – a chance to face fears and better understand the environment
  • sword fights and games like tiggy – a chance to increase physical and social skills
  • exploring unfamiliar spaces – enhances curiosity, navigation and problem-solving skills.

5 simple ways to encourage outdoor learning

You now have an effective, safe and operational outdoor setting. Here are 5 simple ways to encourage children to explore outdoors in your service:

  1. organise a daily time for outside play
  2. set up outdoor play experiences that ​can be accessed independently (e.g. store equipment at children’s level)
  3. make sure equipment and spaces are safe, yet provide challenges (involve children in making rules to stay safe)
  4. support them to choose activities that interest them
  5. provide spaces for children to play together.

Outdoor Classr​oom Day

Looking for outdoor lesson ideas for your service, play ideas for families to do at home, or guidance on making outdoor learning and play part of every day, visit the Outdoor Classroom Day website​ for resources and information.

Additional resources

Outdoor Classroom Day

Outdoor and indoor spaces

Service approval video (transcript)

Early childhood premises

Loose part and risky play: low-cost and sustainable ways to enhance the physical environment

Risky play and children’s wellbeing, involvement and physical activity​

A forest-based yard improved the immune system of daycare children in only a month

Stay safe this summer

Sunsmart policy (DOCX, 1.3MB)

ACECQA’s Sun Protection Policy Guidelines (PDF, 245KB)

Spring into gardening and watch the rewards grow​​​​

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Last updated 04 November 2022