Exploring Early Childhood Teachers’ Beliefs and Practices About Preschool Outdoor Play: A Qualitative Study

Feb. 15, 2015

Source: Journal of Early Childhood Teacher Education, Volume 36, Issue 1, p. 24–43, 2015
(Reviewed by the Portal Team)

This case study examined how early childhood teachers’ beliefs and practices influence the function of preschool outdoor play.

The participants were 10 teachers, and a center director with a principal focus on the outdoor environment. The center’s staff comprised 10 females and one male.
The research site is an early childhood center for ages 18 months to 5 years, located in an urban, upper-middle-class neighborhood in a southern state.
Data were collected through interviews conducted with the center director and the teachers, the early childhood program philosophy and expectation for outdoor play, researcher’s documentation of the unoccupied outdoor environment, observations of child/teacher interactions using five guided questions, and teachers’ answers to journal questions.


The authors concluded that the importance of outdoor play and the necessity of supervision are key themes of the early childhood teachers’ beliefs about outdoor play.
A third theme, the ideal outdoor environment, was also identified from the data. Teachers’ perceptions about outdoor play included the theme of outdoor play opportunities afforded children on the playground. Additional teachers’ perceptions included barriers to outdoor play and teacher preparation and planning for the outdoor environment.

The early childhood teachers at the center believed that supervision is paramount during children’s outdoor play.
The teachers viewed their primary responsibility outdoors as keeping the children safe and providing guidance, yet allowing children to play without teacher intrusion.
Furthermore, teachers perceived that outdoor play opportunities were limited due to the physical space and the fixed equipment outdoors.

In addition, the teachers perceived that planning for outdoor play activities was the same as planning for indoor classroom activities, using small groups.However, due to the supervisory role that must take place outdoors, small-group activities were viewed as prohibitive. Teachers agreed that they had the opportunity to implement different activities on the playground but various factors, including planning, outdoor storage, and indifference contribute to their desistance of such practices.

Teachers had some understanding of the benefits of outdoor play, i.e., health, socialization, and extended time to develop play. However, the teachers viewed the indoor classroom as the learning place, and the outdoor environment was a place to purge excess energy in order to prepare for the indoor classroom. The teacher’s full awareness of the outdoor learning potential and any incentive to promote the development of their outdoor play environment was limited. Teachers adhered to a philosophy that children should have freedom during outdoor play and be encouraged to explore and use their imaginations in their outdoor environment. However, the reality of the playground’s limited physical space, coupled with the teacher’s necessity to keep children safe, prohibited children from freely exploring their environment.


This case study was designed in order to uncover the beliefs and practices that influence meanings and decisions concerning children’s outdoor play environments. Teachers are critical to making the outdoor environment a dynamic place that meets the needs and interests of young children. In addition to promoting safety, teacher responsibilities include planning outdoor activities, interacting with children to scaffold learning, and promoting positive social interactions.

Possible topics for teacher education revealed in the case study analysis included:
a. Teacher education that demonstrates the differences between elements in a playground and elements of an outdoor play environment. The outdoor environment should allow for both free and structured play.
b. Value and implement loose parts in the outdoor environment.
c. Recognize teachers’ facilitative roles in the outdoor environment. Offer education that includes scaffolding teachers’ knowledge of facilitative roles; increases interactions with young children and reduces playing directives; and increases positive communication during play while decreasing the amount of directive behaviors.

Through development of high-quality outdoor environments that demonstrate equal significance in the early childhood curriculum, early childhood professionals can demonstrate to families and their communities the benefits and great value of outdoor play. Early childhood professionals are needed to become outdoor play advocates who are needed to promote the importance and benefits of the outdoor environment. Another important, but often overlooked, aspect of outdoor play is the application of loose parts.


Outdoor play is important to a child’s development, yet less time is spent outdoors than in previous generations. Teachers at this center believed that their ultimate role on the playground was to supervise children’s play. The role of supervision along with limited physical space posed limitations to their planning, preparation, and implementation in the outdoor environment. Teachers voiced that outdoor play is important and that children should experience a sense of free play that they had enjoyed as children, yet they demonstrated strict rule-following or a “philosophy-reality conflict” (Hatch & Freeman, 1988, p. 158).
Understanding the full teacher experience as it relates to outdoor play can contribute and expand the teaching profession’s comprehension of the significance of outdoor play for young children.

Hatch, J. A., & Freeman, E. B. (1988). Kindergarten philosophies and practices: Perspectives of teachers, principals, and supervisors. Early Childhood Research Quarterly, 3, 151–166.

Updated: Aug. 22, 2016