Is outdoor playtime break time?

With summer time upon us, outdoor play is one of the biggest topics of discussion going around blog world. I recently participated in a wonderful discussion on outdoor play on Bam Radio and I hope you will take the 15 minutes of time to listen to it…

The radio segment is titled Why Play Time is Not Break Time” with Rae Pica, Dr. Michael Henniger, Dr. Heather Olsen Ed.D,  and me.  You can listen to it if you click here as well.

Rae Pica with Dr. Michael Henniger, Dr. Heather Olsen Ed.D, Deborah J. Stewart, M.Ed.

Play time is not break time

The unfortunate reality is that often times teachers view outdoor play as the teacher’s time to take a break. But the reality is, outdoor play is one of the most important times for teachers to stay engaged. I am not talking about teachers running around the playground chasing children (although the children just might like that). Instead, I am talking about looking at the outdoor environment as a place to explore, learn, discover and examining whether or not your outdoor space promotes these types of play.

I was recently talking with a friend of mine who teaches preschool and he said, “Outdoor time is the kids time. I just let them enjoy it.”  I agree with him in that this is the kid’s time and they should enjoy it. This radio program and this post is not to make outdoor time another thing to structure but rather to encourage teachers (and parents) to take a good look at what there is for preschoolers to do while they are outdoors so they can enjoy their time on the playground – so they can stay engaged in positive and enriching play.

Engaging ideas to enrich the outdoor play environment

The speakers on the Bam Radio segment shared several ways you can enrich your playground environment.

  • Create prop boxes that compliment the themes or units of learning you are exploring indoors. Outdoor prop boxes are boxes filled with materials that the children can play with outside. They can include anything from dress-up clothes to watering cans to stuffed animals to musical instruments to paintbrushes and buckets of water and more.
  • Bring some music outdoors. Put on a little Greg and Steve and see what happens!
  • Bring the easel or other types of art materials outdoors.

Dr. Henniger from the Bam Radio segment said, “adding elements for play to the outdoor environment adds richness to their play.”

Why add ideas to the outdoor environment?

Both of the guest speakers mentioned that when they asked others to look back and recall some of their favorite memories of play, almost all (if not all) recalled an outdoor play experience. This is because outdoor play brings in “sights, sounds, sensorial experiences, and freedoms are expressed.”

Yes, you may have some terrific playground equipment and the children most likely enjoy it but playground equipment doesn’t change and overtime, children can become bored. Adding prop boxes, music, art, and other materials can keep your children engaged in the outdoor play experience and can lead to additional learning, problem solving, and exploration. If you really want to relax while the children play – then create an environment where the play is engaging!

Be sure to take a listen to “Why playtime is not breaktime” over at Bam Radio and learn more about the importance of the outdoor experience!

PS. I took all these photos at the preschool and what I noticed was how most of the children were playing on and with everything except the playground equipment! Interesting!!


Links to more great ideas for the outdoor environment…

Adding natural elements to your outdoor play space part 1  and part 2 from Let the Children Play!

Rating your outdoor play space from the Body Smart Blog

A rope trail for everyone from I’m a Teacher, Get me Outside Here!

Using sticks for math from I’m a Teacher, Get me Outside Here!

Outdoor music from Child Central Station

Six ways to take art outdoors from Tinkerlab

By |2011-06-18T10:00:39+00:00June 18th, 2011|

About the Author:

Deborah J. Stewart, M.Ed. has been working and teaching in the field of early childhood education for over 30 years. Deborah currently owns and teaches in her own part-time, private preschool called The Children’s Studio. Deborah’s deep passion for teaching and working with young children is documented and then graciously shared with millions of readers around the world through her blog and other social networking communities. Deborah believes that young children learn best through play and exploration and embraces this belief in all that she does in her own classroom so that she can effectively and passionately share rewarding, real- life, tried-and-true practices with other teachers, parents, and leaders across the field of early childhood education.


  1. Alison: Itsy Bity Learners June 18, 2011 at 11:56 am - Reply

    I actually did my dissertation on the importance of recess in elementary schools for my degree. 🙂 It was based on replies from 150 principles and teachers … very interesting responses and to how government restrictions for time allocation and funding actually affect this area.

    • Deborah J. Stewart, M.Ed. June 18, 2011 at 3:48 pm - Reply

      What an interesting dissertation!

  2. Gail June 18, 2011 at 2:46 pm - Reply

    As great as it is to bring out extra stuff for the playground play, my preschoolers have always found ways to enrich their own play! This past year the children, boys and girls, began moving the furniture out of the playhouse so they could sweep the floor with a broom. Then they brought the furniture back and discussed how they wanted to arrange it, having vibrant discussions about the pros and cons of their various ideas. There were endless variations on sand play as well, with excavations through to the bare dirt and buckets used to make tunnels. They enjoyed it thoroughly and there was so much discussion and collaboration. We only had to talk with them to encourage their ideas and to give them vocabulary for what they wanted to express.

    • Deborah J. Stewart, M.Ed. June 18, 2011 at 3:48 pm - Reply

      Great examples of what this is all about! I am so glad you shared what you all are doing – this helps me a bunch!

  3. jami west June 18, 2011 at 4:09 pm - Reply

    Thanks for the great word! I’ve been saying this for years to my teachers and through the workshops I do. We don’t stop being teachers when the children go outside. I find this “teacher break” time happens at naptime too. Outdoor time, naptime, etc should never be about meeting the teachers needs. I believe the moment we step into the environment to the moment we leave the environment it should be ALL about the kids.

    • Deborah J. Stewart, M.Ed. June 18, 2011 at 6:35 pm - Reply

      I agree – well said!

    • Christy June 22, 2011 at 12:13 am - Reply

      Very well stated. Teachers have scheduled breaks and lunches. The time when children are resting is a great way to do some extra cleaning and planning. Outdoor time is, for me, one of the most important segments of a child’s day. It requires thoughtful, intentional planning and is most definitely not the time for teachers to be sitting around “chatting”, even if they are discussing the kids or the curriculum. Our focus ought to always be on the children and the environment, both inside and out, as the “third” teacher. Thanks, Deborah!

      • Deborah J. Stewart, M.Ed. June 22, 2011 at 11:19 am

        Well said and I agree! We need to really take advantage of that “third teacher”!

  4. Juliet @CreativeSTAR June 18, 2011 at 6:11 pm - Reply

    Hello Deborah

    Your readers may be interested in the developments happening here in Scotland. Firstly, our pre-schools are being encouraged to set up routines that enable children to choose where they learn at any point in time – indoors or out. Both should be freely available for children to play in all weathers, all year round.

    Second, for older children who have moved into our primary schools (elementary schools) as from next week there will be Scottish Government guidance about playtimes (recess) and the positive impact of unstructured free play outdoors on children’s ability to concentrate and function indoors. It’s also getting a high profile in terms of meeting children’s needs.

    Thirdly, the emphasis is on natural play spaces filled with open-ended resources that foster creativity and imagination yet also develop problem-solving, higher order thinkings and greater challenge. The expectation is that schools will source materials sustainably and locally where possible and re-use unwanted household and other common items.

    Finally thanks for mentioning a couple of my blog posts. I hope your readers find them worthwhile.

    Best wishes

    PS The outdoor learning research section on my blog has a link to the Grounds for Learning website where there is lots of articles and research about the benefits of recess.

    • Deborah J. Stewart, M.Ed. June 18, 2011 at 6:35 pm - Reply

      Wow – Scotland is really paying attention to early learning! This is fascinating to know! Your site is filled with so much information – it is a pleasure to share!

  5. Rae Pica June 18, 2011 at 6:18 pm - Reply

    Alison, I’d love to know more about the results of that survey! I recently wrote a piece for HuffPost Education called “Reading, Writing, ‘Rithmetic…and Recess!” Feel free to email me at [email protected]!

    • Deborah J. Stewart, M.Ed. June 18, 2011 at 6:33 pm - Reply

      I have sent Alison an email for you…

  6. jenny @ let the children play June 18, 2011 at 10:55 pm - Reply

    I agree that outdoor play is the time to have fun – but then all play, both indoor and out should be fun. To think of it as time to just let off steam is wasting so many opportunities for valuable learning and to connect our kids to the natural world. And thanks for the link love Deborah!

    • Deborah J. Stewart, M.Ed. June 19, 2011 at 2:12 am - Reply

      Thanks for your comment and all you do for play Jenny!

  7. Elise June 19, 2011 at 7:04 am - Reply

    All play, be it indoor or outdoor is a precious and valuable learning opportunity. “Invitations” (props, sensory experiences, natural blocks etc) should be part of outdoor play. Anything open ended is sure to have children coming up with a plethora of creative and unique ideas where skills are learnt and developed.

  8. angelique felix June 19, 2011 at 1:22 pm - Reply

    Hi Deborah, I couldn’t agree more with you! I see how objects, toys or materials get a new meaning or understanding from the child brought outside. I am posting an outdoor play entry on my website tonight where this again is shown. Playing is learning is experiencing is understanding is CREATING to distill and lift everyday objccts out of ordinariness (reggio children).

    • Deborah J. Stewart, M.Ed. June 19, 2011 at 11:49 pm - Reply

      “Playing is learning is experiencing is understanding is CREATING to distill and lift everyday objccts out of ordinariness (reggio children)” I love this Angelique!

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