Scorpions In Your Sand Tray and other Outdoor Play!

abc doesBoys Learning, Continuous Provision, Outdoors22 Comments

This February half term I was lucky enough to be invited to go out to Brunei and work with the team at Hornbill School. 


The school  caters for both Nepali children of Gurkha soldiers and children of serving British military and civilian MOD personnel.  It has over 480 children from 3 – 11 years of age.  Usually the school has around 85-90% of children with English as an additional language (EAL), with high mobility as a result of unit moves and redeployment.

So not without it’s challenges! Having said that they were judged ‘Outstanding’ at their last inspection.

I was working with the Senior Management Team and the Early Years Department doing a mixture of observation, action planning, data analysis, training and conference delivery. Granny’s teeth came along with me (more of that coming soon on the ‘teeth’ page of the blog) and a great time was had by all!

The weather in Brunei is pretty constant – other than in the rainy season. It is warm in the morning and warm in the evening and HOT in the middle of the day. The school need to ensure that they use their outdoor play opportunities wisely and provide plenty of shade for the children when they work outside.

I was talking to the Headteacher (Kathy) about the use of tyres in the outdoor environment and she told me that they used to have a lovely collection of tyres but had to get rid of them as Black Cobras like to nest in them! What with that and having to check your sand tray for scorpions, puts moaning about a bit of cat poo in your outside sand pit into perspective!

Throughout the school there are interesting and inviting places for children to rest and play.


There is an outdoor ’round table’ where groups of children like the School Council can meet to discuss important issues.



Places to be active 

SAM_2410Places to reflect



and chill out!


 and a gong for the end of playtime…


 The outdoor space is full of interesting planting, scent and texture. The focus is very much on experiencing  and investigating the outdoors which is what outdoor play should be about wherever you are in the world and whatever the weather is where you are.

On an ABC Does conference recently I was talking about what effective outdoor play might look like and one lovely lady said that her school had had a recent Ofsted and the Ofsted inspector had told her that she didn’t have enough permanent alphabet and number lines in her outdoor space, which prompted me to ask the question (which I often do)…why would you have permanent alphabet and number lines in your outdoor space?

It doesn’t make any sense to me on a number of levels:

Outdoor play is different from indoor play.

Your outdoor play space should be different from your indoor space

There is a BIG difference between outdoor play and indoor play that has been taken outside. 

But mostly because no child ever stopped their game of Super Hero baddies and said ‘I know we are having a brilliant game of chasing but let’s just stop here for a moment and access this lovely number line and use it in our play!’ It just doesn’t happen.

As an adult with a teaching focus outdoors you might want to take counting/alphabet resources with you to enhance a play experience or deliver a focused teaching session but they don’t make effective permanent features as part of your outdoor Continuous Provision.


Haven Nursery

Apart from the fact that children don’t access them, they get tatty, faded and generally unkempt very quickly. They don’t enhance an natural environment. They are an eyesore! It is not just number lines and alphabets, the same goes for all of the generic downloadable laminated labels that we stick up all over the place.

Labeling your outdoor environment in this way does not make it print rich. Because the children don’t engage with the print it actually encourages them to ignore it. 


The golden rule to outdoor play  is that is NOT the same as indoors. It should look and feel different and while you can build on some of the experiences that children have had indoors, it should offer them something different.


Heygarth Primary

A sand tray that has been pulled outside is not outdoor sand play. It is indoor sand play taken outside.

Lego on a blanket on the grass in not an outdoor construction experience it is an indoor one taken outside.

I am not saying that I think indoor experiences should never be seen outside (on pain of death)!

You might well be encouraging a child to pursue their particular interest with cars or Lego, and support them in carrying this interest into the outdoor environment.

Lots of children will enjoy mark making, reading and creating outdoors using resources from their indoor environment. I think we just need to be clear in our planning for learning in an outdoor space what experiences we are planning, who we are planning them for and why.


‘Outside’ play should offer children different experiences and the opportunities for different types of skill development.

In schools like Hornbill the weather is so warm and sunny that lots of children choose to be outside. Therefore indoor experiences are available, because that is where the children are. There are some children in our cold and rainy climate who prefer to learn outdoor who you might provide indoor learning experiences for, but your team needs to be aware that they are offering indoor skills and ensure that there are lots of other specific outdoor learning opportunities available.

I have worked with settings that have split their outdoor space up into areas of learning. There will be mark making area and a mathematics area, reading space, construction space etc. It is just like an indoor learning space with the roof lifted off.  The issue with this kind of set up is that it is just offering indoor learning opportunities with the roof taken off!


Children who don’t engage with these opportunities indoors are not going to suddenly start engaging with them outdoors. If I associate an alphabet line with phonics sessions that make my brain ache, I will apply that same association regardless of where the line happens to be hanging!

When children are working in their outdoor environment they are usually physically more active than they are indoors both in the type of movements that they make and the range of movement.

Outdoor play should offer the opportunity for children to initiate and take part in games that encourage them to engage in personal interactions, conversations, negotiation and often conflict resolution.


Stanley Primary

Societies attitudes to outdoor play at home have significantly changed over the last twenty years. Children just don’t go into the outdoor environment the way they used to. The use of the car and parental anxiety, the advent of the computer and even ‘garden pride’ keep children indoors. All the more reason to give them access to a quality space in your setting.


Ladybrook Primary

The outdoor environment should be filled with things that stimulate children’s curiosity, things that are interesting to look at an investigate. A good outdoor space has pockets of ambiguity that are open to interpretation and exploration. The more ‘themed’ and structured your space is, then the less opportunities there are for children to really engage. A bit of mud never goes amiss either!


Haven Nursery

 When you are working with younger children, the outdoor space really supports their emergent interests and schemas in a way that the indoors often can’t. How many times have you set up an activity just to find that your inquisitive 2 year olds have picked half of your resources up and stashed them somewhere else for safe keeping? (Often down the toilet)!

Outdoors has the potential to allow them to transport, fill and empty to their hearts content without causing major disruption.


Noah’s Ark Pre-School

A well planned outdoor space supports children in very tangible skills like gross and fine motor dexterity, coordination, proprioception etc. It also develops children’s concentration, creativity and ability to socially interact.


The Friars Primary

Being active has also been linked to antidepressant effects. Physical exercise can be a mood enhancer for all children but can have a real impact on children who present some behaviour management difficulties.


Penguin Pre-School

Exercise is also really good for enhancing brain action as it increases the intake of oxygen and the flow of blood to the brain. Studies have shown that children who exercise before academic testing improved their performance, so your outdoor engagement will have a definite impact on your indoor attainment!

When I watch children in outdoor play, they appear to feel less accountable than they do inside. Our expectations for the indoor environment are usually really clear and where as outdoors, although we will have expectations for behaviour and safety etc the lines are a little more blurred, the space is less predictable therefore there is greater freedom.


Thorpedene Primary

It is in this sort of environment that children begin to take more risk and in turn feel more confident to embrace challenge. In a totally risk free environment, you end up with risk averse children.

Outdoor play benefits children in so many ways, emotionally, socially, physically, aesthetically and intellectually. The fresh air, sunlight, movement, engagement, risk and challenge enhance both their physiological development as well as their state of mind and self esteem.


Hamstel Infant School

Sometimes it can be hard for adults to see outdoors as an environment for learning because it is so alien from what we perceive in education to be a ‘normal’ setting for teaching and learning, but outdoor play is not just playtime it is a fundamental part of children’s development.

So, if it doesn’t look like indoors taken outside, then what might it look like?

You want to make use of any ‘space’ that you have, however small, so it is a good idea not to fill it with large or fixed structures that will limit the potential for play and exploration and also space for movement. IMG00445-20110505-09491

If you are going to introduce any fixed structures, try and keep them open ended like a mud kitchen or a den space. If you start to introduce a permanent ‘train’ or ‘pirate ship’ then these outdoor items will only ever be a ‘train’ or a ‘pirate ship’ for most children. Rather than enhance and develop their outdoor play, the over theming actually restricts it.


Lots of portable equipment like crates, boxes tubes and guttering are ideal because you can move them about as well as offering great opportunities for children to use all of their communication, problem solving and collaborative thinking skills to build and create.


Try and keep your Continuous Provision outdoors open ended and ambiguous. You can then enhance that with resources that follow childrens interests or ideas that you want to introduce to the children.


Look for resources that encourage engagement, talk and play.


Hazelwood Infant School

Revisit the old traditional games like Hop Scotch and ring games. Spend time teaching the children how to play so that they can use them in their own play as well as alongside an adult. All of the features that we want to encourage in our outdoor spaces are included in many of those ‘old fashioned games’.


Heygarth Primary

Consider the power of ‘Super Hero Play’ which is often perceived as being dark and dangerous. Actually, when encouraged and managed appropriately is actually the opposite and can be a very powerful teaching tool.


Middlefield Primary

When we try and ban the making of weapons and guns, it actually makes them more attractive to some children because by outlawing them we have upped the level of ‘thrill’ in creating them. The fact of the matter is that they will do it anyway, but because they know they are not supposed to, the weapons they create are low level and basic.

When we embrace their high level of engagement and provide support and resources to facilitate their interest the weapons that they create become infinitely more complex and show a significantly higher level of thinking and creativity.


Middlefield Primary

If we want our children to be self motivated educators, then we have to give them an environment to interest, puzzle and inspire them.

When you are considering the impact of your outdoors, stand back and watch what children (and adults) are doing  in the spaces you have created. 

Are the resources that you have provided really outdoor or are they just indoor taken out?


Sudley Infant School

When the children are engaged in their outdoor play, can you see challenge? Areas like the track are common for getting high levels of engagement but minimum levels of challenge and attainment. If your children really are whizzing round the track at 90 miles an hour on their three wheeled scooter then they are showing you that they have well and truly mastered that skill. 

If that is the case, then you need to capitalise on the engagement but add some challenge either by enhancing the track or changing the wheeled toys.

Here at Hornbill, they added speed bumps, railway sleepers and a turning circle as well as different road textures to effect the movement of the wheeled toys.



I do appreciate that this is a BIG space, but the principle remains the same even on a small track.

I have really only just skimmed the surface of what outdoor play could and should be. There is no one blueprint for an ‘good’ outdoor space, because each one will be different. But no matter if yours is huge or tiny, concrete or grass, the fundamentals are the same.

Outdoors HAS to be Outdoors and NOT just indoors taken outside!



22 Comments on “Scorpions In Your Sand Tray and other Outdoor Play!”

  1. What about when you are an outside only nursery? We a currently looking for ideas on how to cover all the indoor provisions outside. This is not as easy as it sounds. Any suggestions…

  2. I used to teach Reception at RAF Akrotiri in Cyprus and vividly remember the day I found a scorpion in my room!

  3. I am going to print out your comment about superhero play and number lines and hang it in my office so I am ready for comments from Ofsted and I can throw that at them and see what they say! 🙂 Love your blog by the way!

  4. Thank you Alistair! Loving the speed bumps! At this risk of repeating what has been said, exactly the same criticism was levelled at me for our outdoor area. ‘You need more letters and numbers outside.’ We had a number scotch to 20, digit cards for shooting water at with an adult playing alongside and differentiating questions and the letter frieze (personalised – as you recommend) had been binned a few weeks ago. I explained we can’t afford the laminating pouches or the time to replace this weekly and felt emboldened by your blog to argue with him! Being an Ofsted inspector, he didn’t listen. Well done to everyone else who has commentated too on challenging Ofsted. They don’t know everything and in fact, they often know very little about good EYFS provision!

  5. In the same boat! Worksheets and laminated words flying round the playground, felt tips with no lids that last a day, then moaned at for causing litter!!!
    Fantastic article will forward to our leaders.

  6. Thanks for this. I just jknow we are providing interesting and challenging opportunities in our nursery without the laminated letters and numbers that are hardly looked at by children. Gardening, mud kitchen, bird hide and so many exciting activities to do outdoors and the children love them.

  7. A brilliant article Alistair – printing it off now to hand to SLT – having a big battle at the moment as we are being asked to zone our amazing outdoor space with Literacy and Numeracy areas and fill Tuff Spots with construction toys!

  8. When our nursery had its last Ofsted inspection the inspector was outside observing the children digging and ‘cooking’ in the mud when one of the children gave her a trowel and told her ‘you can’t just watch, you have to help’ her face was a picture but she did join in for a while.

  9. But mostly because no child ever stopped their game of Super Hero baddies and said ‘I know we are having a brilliant game of chasing but lets just stop here for a moment and access this lovely number line and use it in our play!’ It just doesn’t happen.
    Thank you, thank you, thank you. If only my head teacher could make sense of this!

  10. Thank you for this. I have said something very similar in the past about the ‘fixed’ alphabets etc only to be shot down by Head and SIP, “who was I to contradict” I was asked …. An early years practitioner who actually knows how young children play possibly?, very refreshing to see your ideas here and something to work on once the storms and floods have subsided and we can play out again.

  11. “The golden rule to outdoor play is that is NOT the same as indoors. It should look and feel different and while you can build on some of the experiences that children have had indoors, it should offer them something different.”
    Amen to that! Alistair – go get Gove and his cronies and let us all get on with being free of any of the blooming restraints placed upon us indoors!
    p.s. had a massive load of wood chip delivered this week from our friendly neighbourhood tree surgeon – we’ve never had so much fun! Kids kamakazing into it off the playground wall, we dug, we delved, we explored the strange process of decomposition (kids fascinated that it felt warm as we dug down) and finally we buried each other in it like at the beach they said…Got home Thursday night to discover the remnants dropping out of my underwear as I got ready for bed!! Better that then a magnetic letter eh!

  12. Well now that you’ve made that clear 🙂 🙂
    I could not agree more that there does have to be a fundamental understanding of the real purpose of outdoor play and learning through an outdoor space otherwise as you point out people think that taking the book basket and a blanket outside is cutting the mustard.
    Absolutely love the images of the spaces to reflect and chill out…beautiful and not ‘kiddified’, adding primary colours to outdoor spaces is right up there with alphabet lines for me!

  13. I found this article so inspiring. Maybe you should be training OFSTED inspectors though! The school in Brunei looks wonderful, what an experience.

  14. Wow, this is about 4 posts in one so much to take in, I agree 100% that outdoor play has to be different from indoor play & fear that many think by taking a class outside for story or maths they are doing outdoor play.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.