Imagining the outside environment: For learning, social connection, health, wellbeing… and FUN!

What are your memories of the playground from school?

I remember dust bowls and knee-grazing asphalt (with the scars to prove it). I can speak from experience, as I went to three primary schools and two high schools. One school playground stood out above the others, Gymea North Public School in southern Sydney. 


I was only there a couple of years and the school was relatively new. It’s known as ‘the school among the trees’. The vast playground of tall gum trees extended widely and broadly to the boundary along a main road. We didn’t have pristine grass and paving, back then, it was quite rugged and rustic.

Every recess and lunch break we would race to ‘our tree’. Each group of friends would create a ‘cubbie’ – bark, leaves, sticks, whatever we could find. It was very hard to drag us back when the bell rang, as we undertook our construction projects. I can only imagine how dirty we must have been when we returned to class. I’m sure this play would have never passed the risk assessment today. I’m regularly in the area (my elderly father lives nearby) and when I drive past, I recall happy memories.

My high school experience created less positive memories. Recently watching a UK/Aus ‘dramedy’ Frayed, I was sure that I saw the playground at the high school from my youth – a desolate space, quadrangles dissected by covered walkways. Shade? This was not a consideration. As I recall, the grassed spaces were only domain of those who played football, you ventured there at your own risk (or during those semi-regular bomb scares of the 70s).

Outdoor spaces – More than just class breaks and sport

Creating fun, imaginative, calming and natural outside spaces is important in the school design revolution, becoming more than the place where students are tipped-out between classes.

As I travel to schools in Australia, New Zealand and across the world, the outdoor areas and ‘spaces between’ are considered part of the overall learning environment, providing for social connection, wellbeing, supporting both active and passive engagement, with shade, greenery, biophyllic design and the aesthetic seen as essential. 

In her book, Contextual Wellbeing, Dr Helen Street argues that ‘nature deficit disorder’ has an impact on wellbeing,

Spending time in nature, at any level of interaction, enhances our wellbeing, and great benefits occur when students have the opportunity to interact with the natural world around them as part of their educational journey.

Street, H. (2018) Contextual Wellbeing: Creating positive schools from the inside out (p.127)

And not just early learning and primary schools, “just being outdoors benefits all students” (p.127). This means high school as well.

What have I seen?

Take your class to an outdoor space, accessible for all students with power and data built in.
(the boat area is currently ‘under-construction’ and will be positioned in the ground)
Prince of Wales Primary School in Dorchester, UK
Beyond the classroom… just step outside.
Prince of Wales Primary School in Dorchester, UK

It’s wild, messy, productive, “We’ve worked out the best mud-mixture for the mud slide”
Bold Park Community School, Perth WA
Maker space with attitude!
Bold Park Community School, Perth WA
Diverse play options, including a dry creek bed, with rocks!
St Anthony of Padua, Austral, NSW
Farm animals – geese, sheep and a donkey
De Werkplaats, Utrecht, Netherlands
…But you need to be able to store the equipment for the farming.
De Werkplaats, Utrecht, Netherlands
Beautiful wild play with literary themes
Hartsholme Academy, UK
Active outdoor with an amazing waterplay area
Hartsholme Academy, UK
The vast and diverse play area is shared with the local community
Hyllievangs Skole, Malmo Sweden
Creating outdoor areas when space is a premium
Sydhavnen Skole, Copenhagen
On the canal, no fences, water play
Sydhavnen Skole, Copenhagen
Blend of concrete and green, indoors-outdoors
With shade and a cooling mist system
Northern Beaches Christian School, Sydney NSW
We have so much to learn from early childhood learning environments!
Tyneside Nursery, Edinburgh UK
As they say in Nordic countries: “There’s no such thing as bad weather, only bad clothes” Viherkallio Kuolo, Finland


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